Maturity PDF  | Print |  E-mail
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Monday, 12 April 2004 11:54

ImageThe coming of spring results in a transformation of life. Everywhere you turn, you see all of nature begin to come alive again. Flowers start to bloom. The landscape turns green again. Life begins to reappear everywhere. Things begin to grow.

I have always marveled at those people who have a green thumb. There are those who seem to be able to get anything to grow. They are the people who are out in the yard cultivating the flowerbeds, planting the tomato plants, and applying the Miracle Grow. Now I have been quite successful in getting my grass to grow and even more successful in getting the weeds to grow. But I do envy those who seem to have the knack in getting useful things to grow. I also like them, because they give me tomatoes.

Spring reminds us that there is a principle of growth built into our world. Indeed, where there is life, there is growth. Living things grow. If they are not growing, there are only a couple of explanations. It might not be the time for rapid growth. During the winter, growth slows to a standstill. You don’t expect things to grow then. And some things do not grow at an even pace. The Chinese bamboo tree does absolutely nothing – or so it seems – for the first four years. Then suddenly, sometime during the fifth year, it shoots up ninety feet in sixty days. Now, would you say that bamboo tree grew in six weeks, or five years? There are good reasons why we might not observe growth. But when it is time for growth and growth does not occur, then we have to ask ourselves another question. What is blocking the growth? You see, living things naturally grow. If they do not, then something must be keeping them from growing. And so it is with Christians as well.

The Bible teaches us that the goal of every Christian believer is to grow. Indeed, we are to grow in the grace and knowledge of the Lord Jesus Christ and into the likeness of Jesus Himself. The Bible teaches very clearly that the goal of Christ’s coming is not merely to bring people to salvation, the goal is to bring them into full Christian maturity. The question we need to ask ourselves is a simple one. Where are you in your quest for maturity in Christ?

If you examine the state of the Christian church in our society today, and you compare the American church to the Biblical standard, any honest person will come away with the conclusion that the single most pressing need in our churches is for Christians who are spiritually strong and spiritually mature. The Bible calls this discipleship.

In our text today, John points out three categories of believers. We see in these categories three stages of spiritual development in our quest for full spiritual maturity.

Stages of Growth
There are three stages of growth that John highlights for us in our text. The three stages of Christian growth are children, fathers, and young men. We should also point out that these categories have nothing to do with age or gender. It is possible for someone to be sixty years old and still be a spiritual child and it is possible for a female to be a spiritual father in the sense that those terms are used in our text. So let’s look at these three stages of growth more closely.

The first stage mentioned is children. In this passage he mentions each category twice, and so we will take the two references together. In verse 12 he says, "I write to you, dear children, because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name." And in verse 13, toward the end, he writes, "I write to you, dear children, because you have known the Father."

Let me begin by saying that being a child is not necessarily a bad thing. All of us come into the world as babies. As far as I can tell, there is simply no other way to do it. We start out as children. And children can be wonderful. But they are a lot of trouble too. Someone described a baby as "something with a loud noise at one end and no control at the other." That’s true, and it also points out that babies demand a lot of attention on our part because they have not yet learned to take care of themselves. This is a mark of childhood and immaturity. Indeed, the maturation process is designed to teach children how to be more self-sustaining.

Children are characterized by new life. They are born. They are here. They are alive. And this is how John speaks of spiritual children. He says that one of the characteristics are spiritual children is their sins have been forgiven on account of his name. They have been born again. They have experienced the forgiveness of sins. He also says about them that they have known the Father. In other words, spiritual children are alive and they know who their father is. And this is enough at the beginning.

Those of you who have had children know that as long as your baby is healthy and gives you a big smile of recognition when you pick them up, all is well. That’s because you don’t expect any more from babies.

On the other hand, if you were to analyze them critically, you would find that they are not very hard working, they tend to lay around a lot, they are totally self-centered, they burp in your face and don’t even apologize, they have no modesty, and they cry a lot. Why, they act just like babies! No kidding! They are babies.

All of us enter into spiritual life as spiritual babies. We are spiritual children. We know the forgiveness of God and we know who is our father. It’s great to have spiritual children around. But we don’t want them to remain children. What is tragic is when someone has known the Lord for ten, fifteen, twenty years and are still children. Our goal for children is to have them grow up.

The next category of maturity is fathers. In verse 13 we read, "I write to you, fathers, because you have known him who is from the beginning." Again, in verse 14 we read the identical words. He says the exact same thing twice about fathers. It seems as if that is all that needs to be said about those who are fully spiritually mature. And what is it that he says? What is the mark of this spiritual maturity? It is this – they have known him who is from the beginning. Who is him? This obviously refers to our Lord Jesus Christ. Remember what John said at the very beginning of this letter in 1 John 1:1: "That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched – this we proclaim concerning the Word of life." Spiritual fathers have come to know Jesus Christ.

When he speaks of the fact that these fathers have known Jesus Christ, he uses a word which indicates that they "know by experience." In other words, one who is spiritually mature has developed a deep and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. A spiritual father is one who walks with Christ. One who is spiritually mature has had his or her life seasoned by maintaining a close and abiding relationship with Jesus Christ. Because of their walk with Christ, these are they who reflect His nature and character in their lives. They are wise with His wisdom. They are steadfast and stable in His peace. They are merciful and kind because His love abides in their hearts. They have been through the fire and come out still trusting in God’s goodness and grace. This is the goal for every one of us as believers. Our call is to be made into the image of Jesus Christ by following Him consistently and faithfully.

The third category of maturity is young men. In verse 13 we read, "I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the evil one." And again in verse 14 we read, "I write to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God lives in you, and you have overcome the evil one."

Young men are energetic – they are strong. As we move in our development from being children, we grow into young men. John indicates that these young men are strong and in their strength they have overcome the evil one. Young men are characterized by their energy and strength. Young men do the work. Young men fight the battles. Young men make a difference. They are alive.

But why does John put young men third in the order? If you were talking about stages of growth, the order should be children, young men, and fathers. But John’s order is children, fathers, and young men. I think we must remember that John’s purpose was not to give us a logical presentation. John’s purpose was to make a point about growth. And I believe that the reason why he put the young men last was to share what is the most important principle of growth. John wants to share with us the means or instrument of growth. And these young men are his illustration.

Instrument of Growth
What was the key to the growth of these young men? What was the key to their becoming strong? What was the key to their overcoming the evil one? We find in these young men the key to all spiritual growth. The key to spiritual growth is the Word of God. These young men were strong because of the Word of God. John says about them that the word of God lives in you. If we are to grow in spiritual maturity, the Word of God must live in us as well.

I said before that discipleship is desperately lacking in many churches in America today. The reason for this is that the Word of God is not read, studied, and applied to living. People are led astray by cults and false teaching because they don’t know the Word. People have the wrong priorities in their lives because they don’t live the Word. People justify all kinds of wrong behavior, wrong attitudes, and wrong decisions on the basis of worldly wisdom instead of on the basis of clear Biblical teaching. Why? Because the Word of God is neglected.

In 2 Peter 3:18 we are told, "But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ." We are not only to grow in grace but also in knowledge. When Paul was leaving the church in Ephesus, not knowing if he would be able to come back, his closing words were, "Now I commit you to God and to the word of His grace, which can build you up and give you an inheritance among all those who are sanctified." The word of God is the instrument of growth. It is the word that builds us up. Listen to what Paul wrote to Timothy, his son in the faith: "All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the man of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work." (2 Timothy 3:16)

Where are you in your quest for maturity in Christ? This is the question we asked earlier. Where you are is probably directly related to your relationship with the Word of God. Let me share with you four ways we must relate to the Word of God in order to grow.

We must read it. Do you read the Word? I don’t mean read it occasionally. Do you have a daily time where you open God’s book and read it for yourself? If you do not, you will not mature. Make whatever excuse you like, you are just fooling yourself to think that you are growing without reading God’s Word. By devoting about fifteen minutes each day you can read the entire Bible every year. As you do that on a regular basis, you will begin to think from a Biblical perspective. You will have an understanding, an overview of the teachings of Scripture. The Bible will become a part of the fabric of your thinking. This is essential to Christian maturity.

We must study it. You not only need to read the Bible daily you also need to dig deeper. There are many ways to do this. Attending Bible study is one of these ways. And there are a multitude of Bible study aids available for the Christian today. In fact, today we have more study aids than at any other single time in history. If you are not studying the Bible in a serious way, it is not because of a lack of tools. It is a lack of desire. There are many opportunities in this church to study the Bible at a deeper level. In our Sunday School and Adult Bible Study and in our Home Groups, we study the Bible at a deeper level. But you also need to spend time studying it on your own. With the use of commentaries, and other study aids, you can do a serious study of either a book of the Bible or a topic in the Bible. This kind of serious study always bares fruit in the life of the believer.

We must apply it. Diligent study of the Bible does little good unless you apply the truths you find there. You must ask the serious and hard questions that come out of your study. You must not only ask what this means but also what this means to me. Is God saying something in this passage that I need to apply to my life today? How does my life measure up to what I have discovered in God’s Word? Where are the areas that I need to adjust my life to conform to the Word? The Bible is a living book. It is not just an academic study. God speaks to us from the pages of the Bible. That is why we call it His Word. It is a Word of life. It is a Word of truth. It is a Word for today. It is a Word for living.

We must live it. Not only must you ask the right questions, you must do something about it. You must live out the lessons you learn from the Scriptures. This is where so many people fall down. But all the reading and studying and questioning is an exercise in futility if you do not live out what you learn. You see, once we begin to understand what the Bible teaches, we must adjust our lifestyles to conform to the Biblical teaching. Lifestyle issues always need to be decided from a Biblical perspective. And this is a struggle. This is where the rubber meets the road. But this is only where the greatest growth occurs. You see, growth is change. If we are going to grow into the image of Jesus Christ, we must change. That much is for certain. And the instrument of growth is the Word of God. It is the Word read, studied, applied, and lived.

So many Christians today want a quick fix. They want somehow to be zapped by God and instantly changed from spiritual infancy to spiritual maturity. It doesn’t happen that way. Growth is gradual, not instantaneous. We must recommit ourselves to be people of the Book. We must be people of the Word if we are going to be like these young men – strong, energetic, and able to overcome the evil one. Only in that way will we ever come to the place of full spiritual maturity in Christ.

Nine Marks of Spiritual Maturity

When a baby is born, we have standards for what constitutes "normal" development. An eight-pound newborn, for instance, is within the range of normal. An eight-pound three-year-old obviously needs medical attention.

What standards are there for spiritual development? Billy Graham popularized the phrase "born again," to describe persons coming to a vibrant faith. Yet something which is born but does not grow is obviously unhealthy.

What are we growing toward in our Christian living? What are the signs of Christian maturity? What does it look like when someone grows into the "measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ" (Ephesians 4:13)?

George Gallup, Jr., and Timothy Jones spent fifteen years seeking answers to that question. They asked persons to identify others they thought of as spiritually mature. Then, they focused on what made those persons mature in faith. Finally, the lined out nine traits which recurred again and again in the lives of these "saints." All this is spelled out in their book, aptly titled The Saints Among Us.

These "saints" number about 13% of the population. They tend to be "non-white, Southern, and female." They have a disproportionately positive impact on the lives of those around them. While no one is perfectly mature, perfectly saintly, these saints give us an idea of where normal spiritual development leads. They are the best picture of what the newborn babe in Christ ought to grow into.

Reflect on the characteristics below. If you are unsatisfied with your Christian life right now, let this be a springboard to growth. There are ample resources to help us on our journey, once we have an idea of where we're going.

The saints' lives are marked by:

Prayer: these folks set aside time each day to commune with God through prayer. It isn't a haphazard affair.

Presence: these folks have an ongoing sense of the presence of God in their lives. God isn't a stranger.

Power: these folks have experienced the power of God. They know God lives and acts.

Happiness: these folks are happier than the population at large. Their faith sustains them.

Humility: these folks regard themselves and other appropriately . . . not taking themselves too seriously but not "selling themselves short" either. This balanced self-regard enables them to see others more appropriately too.

Volunteering: these folks are actively involved in religious or charitable work . . . they put their faith into action on a regular basis.

Less Prejudiced: these folks are less racially prejudiced than average. Their faith enables them tojudge others based on character, not skin color.

Forgiving: these folks find it within themselves to forgive others. Their faith enables them to let go of old hurts and get on with life.

Politically Involved: these folks see the need for faithful people to be involved in political issues, in order to improve the world they live in.

A genuine encounter with the God of scripture will change us, permanently and unavoidably. The Holy Spirit's presence in our lives will bear fruit ("love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control," according to Galatians 5:22-23). These things are the mark of mature Christian faith.

Spiritual maturity will not happen by accident. We must cultivate lives of prayer. We have to open our Bibles and get to know through them the God who inspired them. We need to put our faith into action and grow in it. These things require effort, yet the reward they bring is measureless. The fruit the Holy Spirit brings is the very blessing we seek most in life. So take the time, invest the energy, allow the growth to happen. Do the following:

1) Study the Bible every day.

2) Pray every day.

3) Be involved in church, not just as a 'warm body' but as an active participant.

4) Use your gifts to make the lives of others more fulfilling.

5) Rejoice every day in the love of God which is making you into the person Christ wants you to be.