In Hebrews 12:2, Jesus is identified as “the founder and perfecter of our faith.” What do these two titles mean?
The title “founder” is variously translated: “author” (NASB, NIV, KJV, NKJV); “pioneer” (NET Bible); “source” (HCSB). Other suggestions in commentaries are “forerunner,” “initiator,” “beginner,” “champion,” “leader,” and “originator.” I remember a sermon in which He was the “trailblazer.” The same Greek word (archēgos) is used to identify Jesus as “the Author of life” in Acts 3:15. Likewise, God exalted Him as “leader” in Acts 5:31.
Closer to our meaning and within the book of Hebrews itself is Hebrews 2:10: “it was fitting that He…should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” “Founder” is the same as in 12:2, and “make perfect” is the verb form (teleioō) of the title “perfecter” (teleiōtēs). Insomuch as Jesus “founded” our salvation, He could be said to be its origin or source, which is why the HCSB gives its translation “source” in 12:2. At the same time, while this thought is in the background in 12:2, the emphasis of 12:1–3 is upon Jesus as an example of enduring and not so much the theological significance of His work as it pertains to our salvation. In other words, He is highlighted as an example for perseverance in 12:1–3, and relationship of His suffering to our salvation is not center-stage.
The title “perfecter” is used only once in the NT and, as best we know, nowhere else in Greek literature. It may have been coined by the author of Hebrews. It carries the idea of someone bringing something to perfection or completion. Hebrews 5:9, speaking of Jesus, states, “And being made perfect [teleioō], he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him.” As in 2:10, this perfection came through obedience in His suffering (cf. 5:8). While these other verses are helpful, they speak of how He Himself was perfected through suffering and not so much what it is that He perfected (i.e., “our faith”) as in 12:2.
Some clues from the surrounding text also push us closer to the titles’ meanings.
First, as just mentioned, both of these titles somehow relate to “our faith.” Technically, the word translated “our” is the Greek article “the,” and the article is used with the word “faith” in Hebrews only when referring to the faith of a group of people, such as “those who listened” (4:2), “all these” (11:39), and “your leaders” (13:7). The faith here is of the “we” in 12:1 who “are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses” whose faith is likewise mentioned in 11:39. So, whatever Jesus’ titles may mean, they are somehow related to the personal and active faith of the readers of Hebrews.
Second, the titles share the one article “the,” indicating that there is some notion that ties them together. “Founder” has the idea of beginning something, just as “completer” brings out its end. What is brought out, then, is that Jesus is somehow related to our faith’s beginning and end.
Third, another technical point, the name “Jesus” comes after “founder and perfecter” in the Greek. Literally, the text reads, “Looking unto the of-the-faith founder and perfecter Jesus.” The emphasis, then, is to give these titles first so as to help us think in a certain way about who Jesus is. While Hebrews 11 gave us many examples of faith, they fade to the background, surrounding the runner. Now we look to the man Jesus as the best example for our faith, for He lived it perfectly from beginning to end. We should run the race with endurance like Him.
Putting together all of the above, it is tempting to identify Jesus as the Pioneer and Perfecter of our faith. He is certainly the source of our salvation, and, more the point of Hebrews 12:1–3, He also pioneered what it was to perfectly live by faith. And, in so doing, He perfected and finished how to do so, even unto the cross, bearing immense hostility along the way. His joy and reward was to sit down at the Father’s right hand, and we will likewise one day reign with Him (cf. Rev 3:21). When we run the Christian race with endurance and look at Him, we will not stumble but be faithful to the finish.