When we were making plans to build our addition to the church I remember many times thinking to myself, “I don’t get it” (admittedly, this is not as rare a circumstance as I would like it to be). I heard the description, I saw the blueprints, but I just couldn’t see the big picture. I couldn’t get a picture in my head as to what things would look like. I remember stepping off the addition in the parking lot and trying to understand. It didn’t work. However, the project management team could visualize the project. In fact, they were able to draw pictures that helped me to see what the final project would look like.
This trip down memory lane is to make a point: if you want to get to the proper destination, it helps to know where you are going. This is true in everything we do. The person who goes into training needs to know what they are training for . . . it makes a difference in how they approach their training. The person who is getting ready to bake cookies needs to know what kind of cookies they are planning to cook to determine what ingredients they need. And the church cannot be effective unless it knows where it is headed. If we want to be what God has called us to be, we need to know His vision for us. If we want to become mature, we have to know what maturity means.
In our text from Colossians 2 this morning we are going to look at Paul’s description of what he desires for the church. He shares his heart and in the process God’s heart with us. This week and next we will look at some of the marks of spiritual maturity.
Notice What Paul Does Not Include
The first thing we should notice about Paul’s purpose for the church is what is not on his list. If we were trying to describe a strong, mature and vital church we might include such things as:
- Diverse Programs
- Spacious Buildings . . . plenty of parking
- Large Attendance in Worship
- Dramatic Experiences
- A certain Style of Worship
These are the things that we are told are the keys to vibrant congregations. These are the things the church growth “experts” point to as leading to successful ministry. But Paul doesn’t include any of these things! So either Paul was mistaken . . . or we are. Our focus is almost exclusively external . . . Paul’s is internal. So, at the very beginning of our discussion we are alerted to the fact that we must change our thinking. We must change the way we define “success” when it comes to the church.
Notice that Paul has committed his life to achieving these goals. He says, “I want you to know how much I am struggling for you and for those at Laodicea (a neighboring town), and for all who have not met me personally.” The word Paul uses for struggle is the word “agon” the same word that is the source of our word agony. It is a reference to the place where the Greeks assembled for their Olympic games. It was a place where they strove to win.
Paul agonized for the maturity of those new believers. We have already been told that he remembered them constantly in prayer. He was so focused on the goal of the church that he was constantly lifting up these people in prayer. He agonized by suffering with them and for them. The whole reason Paul was in jail was to be a faithful witness in Christ. And in 2 Corinthians 11:29 Paul talks about his tireless labor for the church. Paul was committed to these goals for the church. We would do well to strive in a like manner.
A Spiritually Mature Church has a Strong Faith Even in Difficult Times
Paul says, “My purpose is that they may be encouraged in heart . . “(v. 2) The word Paul uses for the word translated “encouraged” is the word “parakalein“. Sometimes this word means to comfort, sometimes to exhort but it is always used in the sense of enabling someone to meet a difficult situation with confidence and strength. One of the indications of mature faith then is strength even when the times are tough.
Listen to these words of the prophet Habakkuk,
Though the fig tree does not bud and there are no grapes on the vines, though the olive crop fails and the fields produce no food, though there are no sheep in the pen and no cattle in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior. The Sovereign Lord is my strength; he makes my feet like the feet of a deer, he enables me to go on the heights.” (Hab. 3:17-19)
Habakkuk determined to hang on because of his confidence in God! He knew God’s character. He knew that He is sufficient for every need. He knew that God loved him. He knew God was faithful. So, no matter what the outward circumstances . . . Habakkuk trusted what he knew to be true. That’s the kind of faith Paul wants from the church. A group of people who see by faith and not by sight.
I know there are many here today who are going through agony. You face physical, relational, professional, financial, and spiritual struggles. Some of you, I’m sure, are not sure how much longer you can hang on. You are exhausted. You’ve tried to be faithful but you have nothing left to give. Friend, if this is your experience then you are on the verge of a great discovery! Your strength for the difficult times does not reside in your ability . . . but His! You may be weary, but He is strong. The Lord knows what He is doing . . . trust Him.
A Spiritually Mature Church is United in Love
Even a casual reading of Scripture will quickly convince you that one of the hallmarks of the church is to be a love that is uncommon in the world. Paul tells us that he prays we might be “united in love”. Gerald Sittser writes,
Diversity strengthens a church only if mutual love first unites it. Without such love, diversity will divide and destroy the church every time conflict erupts. . . .This unity of love will protect us from becoming prisoners to ourselves–to our pet doctrines, rituals, causes, programs, movements or methods. It will also keep us from using the faults, errors and excesses of other believers to excuse our own. (Gerald Sittser, Loving Across Our Differences p. 20, IVP)
Love within a church is a magnetic power. All of us are longing to find a place where we are loved . . . not for what we can contribute but for who we are. This is what the church is to be. In order to “get the picture in my head” I made a list of what I think true love in the body of Christ means,
- We treasure each other
- We spotlight gifts and abilities rather than faults and failures
- We truly celebrate the gifts and blessings of others without feeling resentment
- We rally around each other in times of sadness and loss
- We allow people to have “bad days”
- We are quick to forgive
- We act in kindness toward each other
- We defend each other
- We are willing to do things differently than we would necessarily choose . . . for the honor of Christ.
- And we listen to a list like this and wonder how we could love better rather than moaning because we are not better loved.
There is an oft told story about the six young men that were to run a hundred-yard dash. They lined up, waited for the starting gun and then they were off running. About halfway down the track, the young man in front stumbled and fell. Almost immediately, the other five men stopped and helped him up. When they had dusted him off and decided that he was all right, they then decided to finish the race. None of the judges could tell who won the blue ribbon for none of them could see through their tears of joy. No one in the stands that day would ever forget this incident or how proud they for each of the persons that participated in these Special Olympics. Yes, these young men who cared more about their fallen friend than winning a race, were people that some have the nerve to call retarded. Maybe they understand things better than we do. They give us a parable of what God wants from the church.
A Spiritually Mature Church is Characterized by Knowledge and Understanding
Notice, that Paul says our faithfulness and our love for each other will lead to: “the full riches of complete understanding, in order that they may know the mystery of God, namely, Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge.” In other words, the mature church (and believer) is growing in their knowledge and understanding.
Paul told the church at Rome that the way to resist the push of the world to conform was to “renew your mind.” We must continue to grow in our knowledge and understanding of the gospel. The two words “knowledge” and “understanding” denote that what is needed is more than an increase in factual information. We need to not only learn more facts but we need to know why those facts are important and how they relate to our lives. And notice that it is not just any facts that we should be seeking. . . we should be seeking a deeper knowledge of Christ!
What happens to a vast number of Christians is this: they make a decision for Christ. They become active and involved in the church. They learn the lingo, they learn how to do some things. These things may be spectacular (which is even more dangerous) or ordinary. But they make it to the “mainstream”. Now they talk like a believer, they act like a believer, they are respected and admired. They know enough to fit it. So once they fit in, they sit down! They are content.
But we learn from watching sports that one of the worst things that can happen to a team is to become content. Why? Because that’s when you lose your “edge”. That is when the fire begins to go out. That is when you are most primed for defeat. Our opponent has not lost his fire . . . he is as enthusiastic and diligent as ever. To withstand his attacks we must continue to grow in knowledge and understanding.
The story is told that Socrates, Plato’s mentor, had a student who came to him while he was kneeling by a stream. The student asked Socrates, “What is truth?” Without hesitation, Socrates grabbed the boy, held him under water until the boy began to struggle, pulled him up, and answered, “When you want knowledge the way you just wanted air, then you shall have it.”
Chuck Swindoll gives us six benefits of being spiritually informed
- Knowledge gives substance to faith. Those who do not know the truth are forced to rely on emotion, feelings, or someone else’s opinion, a book, a tradition or some other empty humanistic hope. Their faith lacks substance.
- Knowledge stabilizes during times of testing. When we know God’s promises we have something to hold on to in the times of struggle.
- Knowledge enables us to handle the Bible accurately. The more we know the Bible, the better and more accurately we are able to interpret it. We get better and better at letting the Bible form our values, rather than using the Bible to validate our opinions.
- Knowledge equips us to detect and confront error. You have to know the truth before you can detect error.
- Knowledge makes us confident in our daily walk. The better we know the Lord, and the more fully we understand the salvation God offers, the more confident we are of our position in Christ.
- A good foundation of spiritual truth filters out our fears and superstitions. God’s word silences there false and destructive voices. [Christian Life, Word p. 27-28]
Now I must share a caution . . . Paul warns Timothy that in the last days, the unsaved will be “always learning but never able to acknowledge the truth.” (2 Timothy 3:7). We live in a world where information is readily available. We can learn as much as we want to learn. However, it is not enough to grow in information . . . we must seek out the truth and then acknowledge it and commit ourselves to it.
So, are you sitting or still moving forward in your faith? Are you remaining fresh in the faith or are you beginning to stagnate?
A Spiritually Mature Church is Discerning in Confusing Times
I used to be a sucker for a good advertising campaign. Everyone who called for a donation got one. Every time I received one of those post cards that told you you won something, I would call them. I was willing to pay the $2.00 a minute to claim my prize (little knowing I would be on hold for 20 minutes!) Every time Ed McMahon sent me mail I would send him some back. Those late night TV Infomercials advertised some of the best products ever made! A slick presentation always worked with me. However, I came to realize that not everything that sounds good IS good. And that truth does not change even though times do.
The Bible warns us to beware of false teachers. Listen to these warnings from Pau
(1 Timothy 4:1, 2 NLT) “Now the Holy Spirit tells us clearly that in the last times some will turn away from what we believe; they will follow lying spirits and teachings that come from demons. These teachers are hypocrites and liars. They pretend to be religious, but their consciences are dead.”
[2 Timothy 4:3,4] “For the time will come when men will not put up with sound doctrine. Instead, to suit their own desires, they will gather around them a great number of teachers to say what their itching ears want to hear. They will turn their ears away from the truth and turn aside to myths.”
The best defense, of course, is a good offense. But there are some other things we can do. We can remember some simple principles,
- Not everyone who sounds like an expert is an expert. What makes an actor or actress an authority on anything but acting? These people are constantly being called upon to testify on all kinds of issues. But why? There will always be people who talk authoritatively about God’s will but have no idea what the Bible says. Many people engage their mouth well before they engage their brain. Many (most?) People merely parrot what they have heard others say. Some have never considered the implications of their words.
- Something that sounds good is not necessarily something that IS good. Most deception comes in brightly colored packages. We must see beyond the polished words and slick presentation.
- Most Deception minimizes or seeks to eliminate any talk of sin and responsibility.
- Deceivers will diminish the character and person of Christ. They may talk about how much they love Jesus, but if you ask them to describe Jesus you will get a different picture. Sure, at first they will say, He is the Son of God and Savior. But if you continue to probe, you will find that when they talk about Jesus being the Son of God they believe He is the Son of God much the same way you and I are sons of God. They believe he saved us in the sense that He showed us a way to overcome.
- Deceivers will draw deep meaning from obscure passages of the Bible. If it is not taught clearly throughout Scripture . . . beware!
- Deceivers seldom have a lifestyle that matches their profession.
Time does not permit a fuller treatment of any of these issues. But I hope your picture of what we are to be is beginning to sharpen.
Is it possible that all this talk about spiritual maturity is “over your head?” Could it be that before you can grow in Christ you need to begin with Him? If so, may I encourage you to stop depending on your efforts to be good enough? Friend, the whole message of the gospel is that Jesus came into the world to save those who could not, and would not save themselves. He gave His life as payment for your sin, wickedness and rebellion. All the things about you that you don’t want anyone else to see . . . . He sees. He knows what you’re really like and He still loves you. You matter to God!
I encourage you to give your life to this Jesus today. In simple trust confess your unworthiness and claim His gift of grace. Why not begin the journey today.
And if you are a believer . . . someone who has made this commitment perhaps as you listened to these four characteristics today: faithful in the struggle, loving, growing in wisdom and knowledge and discerning, you may have felt you were doing pretty well in a couple of those areas. If so, I commend you. However we need to remember that these things are a package. If we are weak in one area that will be the area we are attacked in. We must guard all the fronts of our life.
- Do you need to train yourself to trust God more than your own abilities?
- Do you need to work on being more loving?
- Do you need to get out of neutral and start learning and understanding more? Is it time to make a visit to the church library? Time to dust off your Bible and sharpen your pencil?
- Do you need to be more discerning? Maybe you need to start asking questions and interacting with those who would have you follow them.
I must admit, I find that I am working on all those areas. I don’t know whether you ever “arrive”. I feel I am such a long way from the goal. It still seems all a little “fuzzy” to me. But the picture of what I shall be is clear in His head . . . and that’s all that matters. In the meantime I’ll try to keep focused and enjoy the journey.