I have been greatly helped in my pastoral ministry by a passage in John's first epistle, 1 John 2: 12-14. In these verses John mentions three distinct levels of Christian growth – "Little children", "young men" and "fathers". Of course, these terms are to be understood generically and are applicable to all, whether male or female.
It is interesting to note that Jesus also often spoke of three specific categories of growth. For example, in the parable of the growing seed (Mk.4: 26-29), He said that the kingdom of God is like a man scattering seed into the ground and the seed sprouting and growing up by itself, first the blade, then the head, after that the full grain in the head. Then, in another parable, that of the seed that fell into different places (Matt.13: 3-23), He said that the seed which fell upon good ground brought forth, "some a hundredfold, some sixty and some thirty." Also, in John 15, where Jesus uses the allegory of the vine and the branches to depict our relationship with Him, He said that if we abide in Him we would bear fruit, more fruit and much fruit.
There are two dangers when we think of spiritual growth:
A) Lack of growth. This seems to have been a real problem at Corinth. Paul wrote to this church saying, "And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual people but as to carnal, as to babes in Christ. I fed you with milk and not with solid food; for until now you were not able to receive it, and even now you are still not able " (1 Cor.3: 1 & 2). Also, the writer of the Hebrews lamented the fact that his hearers should have been at the "fathers" stage by now, able to help others in their spiritual development, but their own growth had been severely stunted. He writes, "Though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the first principles of the oracles of God; and you have come to need milk and not solid food" (Heb.5: 12).
B) Impatience with the pace of spiritual growth. There are stages of maturity, as in the natural so in the spiritual. We develop from one stage to another. We must reach maturity in one stage before we can go on to the next. There is no such thing as instant growth. Eg The temptations of Jesus were enticements to fast track gratification of His own needs and goals. Satan's methods usually involve some quick fix, for example get rich quick schemes, instant sexual gratification through things like pre-marital sex, extra-marital sex, etc., as opposed to the process of building intimacy in one legitimate relationship, ie marriage. God's way always takes time because it involves the process of growth. Real growth always takes time.
I have found it to be greatly beneficial to understand the characteristics of the three stages of spiritual growth, in order to be able to both understand what is needed for that specific stage and what is needed to bring God's people to the next stage in their development . Let's look briefly at the three stages.
1) Little Children. John says, "I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you" . The characteristic of the first stage of Christian growth, according to John, is to come to a place where we know our sins have been forgiven. The word "forgiven" means to send away from one's self; to bid go away or depart. Our sins were forever put away on the cross. The number one enemy of a healthy development in the Christian life is sin-consciousness. A righteousness-consciousness releases the grace of God. Grace reigns through righteousness (Rom.5: 21). The first thing Christians need to be taught is their position in Christ, and all that has been imputed to us as a result of our new identity.
2) Young Men. To the next group John says, "I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one." There are two Greek words for wicked. Kakos = evil that is content to perish in its wickedness. Poneros (from which we get the word pernicious) = one who is wicked and who seeks to drag everyone else down with him. It is the second word that is used here. Satan is the wicked one who goes about seeking whom he may devour. He is the one who has come to steal, to kill and to destroy.
Young men are those who have learned to overcome the very one whose purpose was to drag them down with him, on his way to destruction. They have progressed from little children. Little children know they are free from the penalty of sin. Young men know they are free from the power of sin. The word overcome is in the perfect tense. Young men constantly enjoy and participate in Christ's victory over Satan. John says, "You are strong." The word here for strong is power as an endowment. That's what grace is – God's ability in the place of our inability. Paul said to Timothy, "My son, be strong in the grace that is in Christ Jesus" (2 Tim. 2: 1). He also said to the Ephesians, "Be strong in the Lord and in the power of His might" (Eph.6: 10). Strength to resist Satan is part of the package of salvation. Grace is not the putting forth of our strength, but the laying hold of His. Thus, there is a difference between being strong for the Lord and being strong in the Lord. This power was appropriated by them as a result of the Word of God abiding in them (1 Jn.2: 14), lit. being welcomed into the home of their hearts.
So, whilst little children know their position in Christ, young men have allowed their position to translate into daily living. They know how to get that which is on the inside to the outside. This is always God's way. He first changes the inside, and then transforms the outside. Satan begins with the outside and works in. He starts with the lust of the flesh, then the lust of the eyes and the pride of life. He works from the outside in. God works from the inside out. Young men have learned how to get their position to impact their practice. They know how to bring their behavior in alignment with their identity.
3) Fathers. What is the characteristic of fathers? John says, "I have written to you fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning." Whilst the young men spend much of their time focusing on the wicked one and how to overcome him, fathers have progressed from this to build an intimate relationship with their heavenly Father.
There is one essential requirement for a father. He must have children! We cannot be fathers if we do not have children to care for. The final growth of spiritual growth, then, is when we have progressed to the point of maturity that we can now take responsibility for the spiritual development of another Christian.
God has a two-fold vision for every living thing – "Be fruitful and multiply". This can be summed up as produce and reproduce. God wants us, first, to grow. But have you noticed that growth has a limit. A tree grows, but does not keep growing. Animals grow, but do not keep getting bigger. So too humans. Around the time things stop growing they can participate in God's next phase for them, ie to reproduce. Every form of life contains within itself seed for reproduction. God wants us to first grow, then multiply, ie to be responsible for the growth of another. He wants us to produce fruit, and then reproduce.
Paul lamented the fact that though there are many teachers there are not many fathers. Fathers, mentors, role models, call them what we will, are vital to the process of spiritual growth in the body of Christ. Writing to the Corinthians he exhorted them, "Imitate me, just as I also imitate Christ" (1 Cor.11: 1). Jesus referred to this process as making disciples. Juan Carlos Ortiz said: "A disciple is someone who learns to live the life his teacher lives. Then, with his life, he teaches others to live the life he lives." People don't just hear what we say. They watch what we do. We model the truth. We are to be models to others by our lives.
Some reading this may think to themselves, "My life is not good enough to teach others." The fact is that we are not models of perfection, but models of growth. There are always people ahead of us and people behind us in the Christian life. Fathers are those who help others to grow to where they are.
By Ken Legg
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