Opening Prayer: Father, we thank You for the privilege of being Your children. As we study, touch our hearts to understand how and why we should pursue spiritual growth. Amen.
Growing Up -- This time for real
Let's open the Bible to 1 John 2:12-14:I write to you, little children, Because your sins are forgiven you for His name's sake. I write to you, fathers, Because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, Because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, Because you have known the Father. I have written to you, fathers, Because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, Because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.
Let's begin with two observations. First, the apostle John has been nicknamed by some Bible commentators as the apostle of love. His writings are often characterized by a father's love for his children. Second, I want you to notice that John does not address himself to unbelievers at any point in these verses. So if you do not consider yourself a born-again believer in Jesus, the Messiah, you are getting a behind-the-scenes glimpse of somebody else's family time. You're welcome to come visit, and enjoy the show. If you do consider yourself a believer, this message is for you.
First question: Does John act as if all believers are at about the same level of growth?
Nope. He draws distinctions between four distinct groups:
- First, he addresses little children, verse 12. Look up in Strong's Concordance #5040 -- teknion -- the diminutive form, or newborn infant. In the context of the church, this describes new converts. They are alive and their sins are forgiven, but they're not very functional -- yet.
- Next, little children, verse 13: Strong Concordance #3813 -- paidion -- a half-grown child. This is a diminutive form of 3816, which has the implication of a young servant boy or girl. This is a picture of a partly grown Christian: alive and walking, but not mature yet. An embarrassingly large percentage of believers fall into this category.
- Young men, verse 13: We don't need to look this one up -- it says young men and it means just that. This refers to a believer who has grown, and learned some discipline. This person is alive, walking, and at a healthy level of strength, vitality and enthusiasm.
- The fourth category of person is fathers. It speaks of mature believers who have learned discipline and are capable of reproducing the life of Christ in others.
This isn't just for people long ago and far away. This word picture still applies today, and shows that we as believers should consider ourselves as family.
The apostle Paul used a different metaphor his letter to the Romans, chapter 12, verses 4-5:For as we have many members in one body, but all the members do not have the same function, so we, being many, are one body in Christ, and individually members of one another.
He amplifies this theme in his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 12 and verses 12-21:For as the body is one and has many members, but all the members of that one body, being many, are one body, so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit we were all baptized into one body; whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free; and have all been made to drink into one Spirit. 14 For in fact the body is not one member but many. 15 If the foot should say, "Because I am not a hand, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body? 16 And if the ear should say, "Because I am not an eye, I am not of the body," is it therefore not of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, where would be the hearing? If the whole were hearing, where would be the smelling? 18 But now God has set the members, each one of them, in the body just as He pleased. 19 And if they were all one member, where would the body be? 20 But now indeed there are many members, yet one body. 21 And the eye cannot say to the hand, "I have no need of you"; nor again the head to the feet, "I have no need of you." 22 No, much rather, those members of the body which seem to be weaker are necessary.
That's a wonderful analogy, and it teaches us about how much we need each other. But the comparison of the Church to a human body has a weakness. It pre-supposes that all parts were born at the same time.
The truth is that we all came to the Lord at different times and places, and we have all grown at different speeds. In real life, we need to get to at least the young man stage before we can really be considered a fully functioning part of the body. Otherwise, it might be like having a short leg. Or worse.
So the picture of the body is a wonderful analogy, but it can't express the full range of relationships between believers. John gives us a different picture here, by using analogy of family, with members at different ages.
John's point in explaining all this was NOT to make it easy to understand that we are at different stages of growth. We all knew that already. His point is that kids need to grow to be young men, and that young men need to grow to be fathers. Clear so far? Good! That's point number one.
Point number two: This growth must take place within the framework of accountable relationships. There were three long words in that last sentence, but I'm sure you understood it. Members of the family have a responsibility to one another.
Will somebody please explain that in simple terms, as it applies to you and me, members of a particular church organization?
Yes. Each of us should have a clearly defined, interactive relationship to somebody in an authority position in the church. The Christian walk should not be just a one-way flow of rules and regulations. The world (and some denominations) can do that just fine. The Law can do that. Instead, we're talking about a Spirit-led father/child relationship, where the child is responsible to the father, and the father is responsible to God for the growth and development of the child.
Unfortunately, this type of relationship is rare in the church today. A few groups have tried to reestablish discipleship, with mixed results. And they are the great minority of churches. The tendency is for horizontal relationships -- kids want to hang out with other kids, and grownups want to hang out with other grownups. Which means that the grownups aren't really very grownup, since they aren't accepting their responsibility to be fathers. How well does this comfort-zone stratification work? Not well.
The unpleasant truth is that the church of Jesus Christ is not a well-integrated body of mature members. Instead, it tends to be a reflection of contemporary society. The calendar marches on. Biology forces our bodies to grow and reach maturity. But what makes people grow up and achieve emotional and spiritual maturity? Usually, some outside influence, such as parents, military service, job, school, or maybe a coach.
Ditto in the church. Calendar time goes by. As a new believer goes along, he gets exposed to a certain number of sermons and song services and home groups. After awhile, we stop calling him a new believer. But what determines if he is actually a mature believer? How can we be sure he or she will ever grow up?
We can call a person mature if he/she obeys the commands of Christ, and does the things necessary for spiritual health: reading the Bible consistently, praying (for self and others), sharing the Gospel at every reasonable opportunity, attending worship services and home groups, growing in giving, exercising the Spiritual gifts that have been given, enjoying the character change wrought by the Holy Spirit (the Fruit of the Holy Spirit), and obeying those people in authority. A healthy person does these things, and more, as the Spirit leads him/her.
And let me make an important distinction here: a person can do these things whether he or she is in an accountable relationship or not. Is that clear? And maybe some of you already do all these things without being told. Why, then, should you be in some type of accountable relationship with a person in authority like a pastor or home group leader? Why the fathering that we're talking about? Would it make me do anything differently? Is there anything that the fathering person would tell me to do that I wouldn't do on my own?
This is an important question. Why should I spend my time, and that of somebody in authority, being told to do what I'm already willing and maybe already planning to do? And what if I feel that the fathering person doesn't know as much as I do about Scripture?
Let me use distance running as a way to illustrate the need for fathering. A surprising lot of serious distance runners have coaches. The coaches tell the athletes to do certain activities to get ready for specific races. The runner probably already knows how to do those activities: running specific distances at specific paces; maintaining a healthy diet; doing stretching exercises before and after, and so forth. And it could well be the case that the coach isn't much of a runner himself. Maybe his best time in a 10K race is several minutes slower than that of the athlete he's coaching. Why is the coaching necessary?
The issue is accountability. And it speaks to several needs at once:
- The coach maintains the long-term perspective, regardless of the ups and downs of a particular day.
- The coach might know certain training methods that increase the efficiency of a given number of hours of training.
- A biggie: It's often more effective to be taught (or led) by a real person with specific experience than to get it from books.
- And the athlete knows that the coach will push him OUT of the comfort zone and INTO a program that will give maximum results.
Have I lost anybody yet? Let's get closer to real life. Can you see the similarities between a running coach and a person in a spiritual fathering relationship?
The person in spiritual authority provides:
- Long-term perspective.
- Training methods to achieve goals more quickly.
- The advantage of first-hand experience.
- Someone to push me out of the comfort zone and into faith.
In addition, consider these added dimensions of spiritual fathering:
- We get practice obeying authority.
- The act of submission works to destroy pride.
- The act of submission works to expose and eliminate rebellion, which of course none of us suffer from.
- Spiritual fathering edifies the wholeness of the body, especially the reproductive aspect.
The biggest issues for me are pride and rebellion. These creep in without any conscious effort on my part when I'm not actively seeking interaction with my spiritual authority person. Yes, I'm doing the "right things." But I'm doing them on MY schedule, according to MY priorities, to achieve what I perceive God's will to be.
Back to the running example. I never had a coach, but several years ago I entered the different running events around the county. So my running tended to point toward preparation for this run or that run. Not because I planned to win (or even place) at these runs. But being around those runners motivated me to perform well. Solid training before the race meant I had more in common, more koinonia, more fellowship with the other runners. But if I just did random jogging instead of regular training, it would have been obvious by my haphazard performance.
Likewise, when I spend time in fellowship with other believers, it keeps me centered. It helps my accountability. Because if I haven't been doing my spiritual training, I will have less in common, less koinonia, less fellowship with my brothers and sisters in Christ.
When I spend time around the pastors, it centers me, and I'm not so isolated from their guidance. They are able to do more for my spiritual growth. And who benefits? We all do. Let's look at some examples in Scriptures of how strong leadership meant strong people.
Let's start with Judges 2:7-19:So the people served the LORD all the days of Joshua, and all the days of the elders who outlived Joshua, who had seen all the great works of the LORD which He had done for Israel. 8 Now Joshua the son of Nun, the servant of the LORD, died when he was one hundred and ten years old. 9 And they buried him within the border of his inheritance at Timnath Heres, in the mountains of Ephraim, on the north side of Mount Gaash.
10 When all that generation had been gathered to their fathers, another generation arose after them who did not know the LORD nor the work which He had done for Israel. 11 Then the children of Israel did evil in the sight of the LORD, and served the Baals; 12 and they forsook the LORD God of their fathers, who had brought them out of the land of Egypt; and they followed other gods from among the gods of the people who were all around them, and they bowed down to them; and they provoked the LORD to anger. 13 They forsook the LORD and served Baal and the Ashtoreths.
14 And the anger of the LORD was hot against Israel. So He delivered them into the hands of plunderers who despoiled them; and He sold them into the hands of their enemies all around, so that they could no longer stand before their enemies. 15 Wherever they went out, the hand of the LORD was against them for calamity, as the LORD had said, and as the LORD had sworn to them. And they were greatly distressed.
16 Nevertheless, the LORD raised up judges who delivered them out of the hand of those who plundered them. 17 Yet they would not listen to their judges, but they played the harlot with other gods, and bowed down to them. They turned quickly from the way in which their fathers walked, in obeying the commandments of the LORD; they did not do so.
18 And when the LORD raised up judges for them, the LORD was with the judge and delivered them out of the hand of their enemies all the days of the judge; for the LORD was moved to pity by their groaning because of those who oppressed them and harassed them. 19 And it came to pass, when the judge was dead, that they reverted and behaved more corruptly than their fathers, by following other gods, to serve them and bow down to them. They did not cease from their own doings nor from their stubborn way.
The above passage isn't very uplifting, but we all recognize the key principle: A strong leader can influence an entire generation to follow the Lord. But when the leader and his generation pass from the scene, the next generation will probably drift (or run) from God. The Bible is very clear on how quickly a nation can turn away from God and indulge in their individual weaknesses.
We see this even in leaders who start well but end up in idolatrous behaviour, like Solomon. This is especially remarkable since Solomon had received personal direct revelation and incredible promises, as we see in 1 Kings 9:1-9:And it came to pass, when Solomon had finished the building of the house of the LORD, and the king's house, and all Solomon's desire which he was pleased to do, 2 That the LORD appeared to Solomon the second time, as he had appeared unto him at Gibeon. 3 And the LORD said unto him, I have heard thy prayer and thy supplication, that thou hast made before me: I have hallowed this house, which thou hast built, to put my name there for ever; and mine eyes and mine heart shall be there perpetually. 4 And if thou wilt walk before me, as David thy father walked, in integrity of heart, and in uprightness, to do according to all that I have commanded thee, and wilt keep my statutes and my judgments: 5 Then I will establish the throne of thy kingdom upon Israel for ever, as I promised to David thy father, saying, There shall not fail thee a man upon the throne of Israel. 6 But if ye shall at all turn from following me, ye or your children, and will not keep my commandments and my statutes which I have set before you, but go and serve other gods, and worship them: 7 Then will I cut off Israel out of the land which I have given them; and this house, which I have hallowed for my name, will I cast out of my sight; and Israel shall be a proverb and a byword among all people: 8 And at this house, which is high, every one that passeth by it shall be astonished, and shall hiss; and they shall say, Why hath the LORD done thus unto this land, and to this house? 9 And they shall answer, Because they forsook the LORD their God, who brought forth their fathers out of the land of Egypt, and have taken hold upon other gods, and have worshipped them, and served them: therefore hath the LORD brought upon them all this evil.
The key of the above passage is verses 6-7, where it talks about '...if you or your sons at all turn from following me...' If rulers wimp out, the nation is doomed. The whole nation is down the drain if the rulers are unfaithful.
And let's not point the finger at Solomon and the nation of Israel, as if those people were less noble or less educated or less "nice" than we are in the United States. How does our current national leadership measure up in terms of godliness and personal integrity? How many of them profess some type of religion? Nearly all. But how many of them are actually willing to suffer discomfort (much less persecution) in service of the living God? Any? Maybe a tiny, persecuted minority.
Another question: Does the Biblical principle still hold true? If the leaders of our nation have gone astray after gods (spelled with a small "g") of their own choosing, should we expect serious moral decay? Have we experienced it already? You tell me.
Now let's look at 2 Kings 18:1-12:Now it came to pass in the third year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Hezekiah the son of Ahaz, king of Judah, began to reign. 2 He was twenty-five years old when he became king, and he reigned twenty-nine years in Jerusalem. His mother's name was Abi the daughter of Zechariah. 3 And he did what was right in the sight of the LORD, according to all that his father David had done. 4 He removed the high places and broke the sacred pillars, cut down the wooden image and broke in pieces the bronze serpent that Moses had made; for until those days the children of Israel burned incense to it, and called it Nehushtan. 5 He trusted in the LORD God of Israel, so that after him was none like him among all the kings of Judah, nor who were before him. 6 For he held fast to the LORD; he did not depart from following Him, but kept His commandments, which the LORD had commanded Moses. 7 The LORD was with him; he prospered wherever he went. And he rebelled against the king of Assyria and did not serve him. 8 He subdued the Philistines, as far as Gaza and its territory, from watchtower to fortified city.
Let's stop here for a moment: How successful was this king who trusted and served God? Would you agree that he was one of the most-successful kings ever? Let's continue with verses 9 through 12:9 Now it came to pass in the fourth year of King Hezekiah, which was the seventh year of Hoshea the son of Elah, king of Israel, that Shalmaneser king of Assyria came up against Samaria and besieged it. 10 And at the end of three years they took it. In the sixth year of Hezekiah, that is, the ninth year of Hoshea king of Israel, Samaria was taken. 11 Then the king of Assyria carried Israel away captive to Assyria, and put them in Halah and by the Habor, the River of Gozan, and in the cities of the Medes, 12 because they did not obey the voice of the LORD their God, but transgressed His covenant and all that Moses the servant of the LORD had commanded; and they would neither hear nor do them.
Obvious question: What was the long-term future for the rebellious northern tribes of Israel and their idolatrous kings? Did they even have a long-term future?
New question: In what way is the United States of the last few decades morally superior to the ten northern tribes of Israel? Think hard. There might be something.
To sum up:
- All of us in the Church are at different levels of maturity -- infant, small child, young adult, or spiritual father.
- Too much of the Church is mired in the infant and small child stages.
- Submission to spiritual authority helps us learn and grow strong and stay strong -- the way an athletic coach brings out the best in his pupils.
- On a national level, strong spiritual leaders can elevate a country to greatness.
- Corrupt, godless national leaders lead to captivity and bondage.
- We need to pray for our national leaders, both elected and appointed. We need to be especially diligent in prayer if these leaders seem particularly unworthy of our support in prayer.
In closing, remember that God sends us many opportunities for growth. Some might come disguised as difficult circumstances or personal heartache. Open your heart to the opportunities and challenges God gives you because He loves you.
Closing Prayer: Lord, I confess to being comfortable in my immaturity. Please help me make the most of the circumstances and spiritual leaders that You bring to my life.