Tuesday
Jul122011

Mature in Christ

Every animate thing is subject to a life cycle with birth and death at the extreme edges of its material existence and a process of growth and maturation in between.

This is easily observable in the animal kingdom and even more immediate among humans, as we watch our children proceed from birth into infancy, young adulthood and maturity. Some take longer to grow up than others, and it can be argued that some never really quite make it, but the process is generally inevitable and even desirable.

Spiritual maturation is so similar to the physical that the inspired Bible writers borrowed heavily from it to illustrate the process by which disciples are made and grow from “babes in Christ” to seasoned believers. Again, however, some never quite attain maturity – it is not inevitable at all.

The apostles’ goal in preaching and, especially, in writing to Christians and churches was to encourage their maturation, to prevent it from stagnating and reversing. Paul admonished the saints in Colossae, “warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil,” he wrote, “struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me” (Colossians 1:28-29). His associate, Epaphras, similarly exerted himself for the Colossians’ sake,  “always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you,” Paul told them (Colossians 4:12-13).

The church itself plays an essential role in the maturation of the believer, so essential that one is only defying the wisdom of God when he chooses to isolate himself from congregational membership or the discipline of fellow believers (Proverbs 18:1, Hebrews 10:24-25). Paul wrote, 

 

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16)

 

Every local church should be equipped to help its members in the pursuit of individual maturity – worship, teaching, fellowship, community, discipline, and authority are integral to thriving as a child of God, increasing in devotion to holy things, and becoming resistant to the devices and deception of the adversary. As little children can be led astray by something as simple as a lollipop, so new Christians and those who have isolated themselves are vulnerable to enticement that more experienced eyes might have spied out (Titus 1:10-16).

Spiritual maturation is wholly dependent upon a steady dose of divine wisdom, contained in the revealed word of God rather than the opinions, creeds, and even commentaries of mere men. While an eclectic mixture of human philosophy and diluted truth is popular today in self-help literature and self-imposed spirituality, the will of God is purer and distinct. When preachers are content to preach the word, the spirits of the people who hear them are properly nourished and challenged (see Second Timothy 4:1-5, First Timothy 4:16). Paul writes, 

 

Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away. But we impart a secret and hidden wisdom of God, which God decreed before the ages for our glory. (First Corinthians 2:6-7)

 

Babies crave only their mother’s milk and for good reason; they can handle nothing more. Teeth develop quickly in healthy infants, however, and a need for more solid food becomes evident. Babes in Christ likewise must begin with the milk of God’s word before graduating to its meat. Peter writes, “Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation – if indeed you have tasted that the Lord is good” (First Peter 2:2-3).

Problems arise – physically as well as spiritually – when this expectable growth is somehow stunted. When babes in Christ progress so little that they never become equipped to chew on meatier subjects, regression and apostasy become likely. The Hebrew writer, for instance, wanted to explain the priesthood of Christ to his readers, but feared they had not built up their knowledge sufficiently to tackle the subject:

 

About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. (Hebrews 5:11-14)

 

The apostle Paul encountered a similar issue in Corinth, where petty and personal rivalries were tearing the church apart. 

 

But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? (First Corinthians 3:1-3)

 

Although everyone progresses at different rates, there is a noteworthy dissatisfaction in Scripture with disciples who stagnate in infancy, whether due to declining worship attendance, poor study habits, inadequate discernment of good and evil, or burgeoning apathy. The baby grows as a result of natural forces, but the spiritual person is required to invest his heart and mind willingly in the process. Sober thought, diligent effort at study and obedience, prayer, and regular fellowship with those of common faith promote continued spiritual maturity (Second Timothy 2:22). The spirit is malnourished, or simply starved, without a steady diet of them.

Spiritual maturity will become evident in the cognitive manner with which we learn to “test everything; hold fast what is good. Abstain from every form of evil” (First Thessalonians 5:21-22). Where the unbeliever perceived no pang of conscience while sinning and even the babe in Christ fell prey to his ignorance or weakness, the mature disciple is trained, informed, and strengthened. “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature” (First Corinthians 14:20).

Spiritual maturity is the point at which resisting temptation feels better than indulging it. It is where the promise of Heaven is more meaningful and tangible than any earthly pleasure that would interfere with it (Second Corinthians 4:16-5:1). Like the apostle, we “press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained” (Philippians 3:14-16).

The Hebrew writer presents the great man, Moses, as an example of this spiritual maturity, for, “when he was grown up, [he] refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter, choosing rather to be mistreated with the people of God than to enjoy the fleeting pleasures of sin” (Hebrews 11:24-25).

Sadly, some Christians view spiritual maturity as much more optional than they do physical growth. Content with plateauing somewhere soft and relatively low, they cease to grow and actually regress. The soil of their hearts is revealed to be thornier than it seemed at first, and “as they go on their way they are choked by the cares and riches and pleasures of life, and their fruit does not mature” (Luke 8:14).