SPIRITUAL MATURITY THROUGH FELLOWSHIP
Article by James W. Johnson
At last! My certificate has just arrived by special delivery. It’s now official. This is what it says:
This is to certify that
has successfully satisfied the examiners that
he knows a lot of big religious words and
understands the meaning of many obscure
ancient Hebrew and Greek words.
Therefore, by the powers invested in me,
I declare that the above named is entitled
to all the rights and privileges of a
SENIOR CHRISTIAN Grade II
Signed by me, Gabriel Archangel,
World Council of Registered Christians,
on Friday, the 18th September in the year
of our Lord, two thousand and fifteen.
This certificate may sound impressive to some people, but are you thinking what I’m thinking? When I stand before Christ, will it impress HIM? Of course not. For one thing, I won’t be able to take my certificate, or anything else with me, only myself. Ultimately, the good works, prepared for us by God, are not our works, but Christ’s work.
Will I be able to say to Christ, “I understood some very difficult words - justification, redemption, reconciliation, atonement, and transubstantiation.” Will Christ be happy and reply, “Well done, good and faithful slave. Come and share your master’s happiness.”? No, knowledge by itself will be useless then.
Perhaps I won’t bother to frame my certificate, after all!
I have begun in a light-hearted way, but I have a serious point to make.
The Apostle Paul told the saints at Corinth that not many of them were wise by human standards, or influential, or of noble birth. God mainly calls ordinary, weak, foolish people. Paul also said that he didn’t come with eloquence or superior wisdom. But he did come with a demonstration of the Spirit’s power, so that their faith might not rest on men’s wisdom, but on God’s power.
Paul went on to say that he spoke, not in words taught by human wisdom, but in words taught by the spirit, expressing truths in spiritual words. Then Paul makes a surprising statement. The man without the spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him, and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.
My diploma based on human knowledge and philosophy is a waste of time and paper. Not only that, we can read all the books in the world, for example about swimming, but if we don’t jump into the water we will never learn to swim. We have to put into practice what we learn.
God tells us to grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. But there is a real danger that we would seek that knowledge outside of the Scriptures. There is also a danger that we will seek ‘spiritual feelings’, to judge whether we are growing spiritually. We do not have to feel new. We are a new creation. We just need to believe Ephesians 1:3: “God has blessed us in Christ with EVERY spiritual blessing.” And Colossians 2:10: “We are COMPLETE in Him ...”
When you received information about this fellowship weekend, you did not receive a questionnaire with it, which read like this:
“Here is a list of teachings. Tick the boxes you believe. Please note that if you do not tick the correct answers, you will not be allowed to attend.”
“On a scale of 0 to 5 (0 being ‘immature’ and 5 being ‘perfect and mature’) what stage do you consider you are at spiritually?”
I will explain later the reason no such foolishness is done.
But first, I want to focus on some deceptive philosophies about maturing as a believer.
One is that of asceticism. In order to grow it is considered necessary to observe certain physical regulations: fasts, diets, religious festivals, and beating ones body. Then there are regulations about the mind - yoga, transcendental meditation, tarot cards, angel readings and many more like it. And there are plenty like it - introversion, inward silence, dreams, depth psychology.
The thinking behind it is, “If I can control my body by subjecting it to a rigorous diet, by treating it harshly, by observing set times and days for prayer and religious observance, then my spirit will be free from the passions and lusts of the body, free from the controlling power of sin, able to be truly mature as a Christian. I will be on a higher plane, unaffected by the normal demands of life and the various temptations to sin.”
No such nonsense is found in the Scriptures. In fact, it is the opposite; for example in Colossians 2:8 Paul warns: “Beware that no one shall be despoiling you through philosophy and empty seduction, in accord with the elements of the world, and not in accord with Christ, for in Him the entire complement of the Deity is dwelling bodily.” He goes on in verse 16, “Let no one, then, be judging you in food or drink or in the particulars of a festival, or of a new moon, or of sabbaths, which are a shadow of those things which are impending - yet the body is the Christ’s.”
Paul states that the teachers of these philosophies only do this to puff up their fleshly mind.
To grow spiritually we must “hold the Head out of Whom the entire body is supplied and united through the assimilation and ligaments” as it says in Colossians 2:19. If we died together with Christ, why are we living in accord with the directions and teachings of men? These things may have an appearance of wisdom in self-imposed religion, false humility, and neglect of the body, but are of no value against the indulgence of the flesh. So, Paul continues, “If, then, you were aroused together with Christ, be seeking that which is above, where Christ is ..... Be disposed to that which is above, not to that on the earth ...”
So there is the answer - Get you mind off your body, don’t be continually introspective - look to Christ, to things above. In any case, these things are all for corruption from use - in other words, they will not last for ever.
But why would anyone think that by beating their body they could prevent sinning? Because the teaching of Plato and others was that the body was evil, and it needed to be in subjection. The body was supposedly the source of all evil. This concept permeated Christendom but it is not Scriptural. God calls His physical creation “very good”. That includes the human body and mind. The worldly teaching is that human experience is divided between spiritual and non-spiritual. Paul tells the Colossians in 3:17, “And everything, whatsoever you may be doing, in word or in act, do all in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ, giving thanks to God, the Father, through Him.” So all that we do is to be done under the lordship of Christ, even scrubbing floors! There is no separation between sacred and secular.
Spirituality is expressed primarily in the everyday affairs and relationships in our lives. You want Scriptural proof? Look at Colossians 3:23: “All, whatsoever you may be doing, work from the soul, as to the Lord and not to men, being aware that from the Lord you will be getting the compensation of the enjoyment of an allotment: for the Lord Christ are you slaving.”
We don’t need to get into a trance to reach God. We already have a relationship with God through Jesus Christ. We don’t have to do anything to get into God’s presence, or to make Him present. There is no higher spiritual experience. No higher plane to reach by drugs, meditation, or anything else. Christ’s work on the cross is the necessary and sufficient basis for Christian maturity.
There is no warrant in Scripture to devalue the human or the natural. Yes, the whole of mankind does sin and fall short of the glory of God. Humanly speaking, we are no different. But this is what Christ said to His disciples in John 15:3-4: “Already you are clean because of the word which I have spoken to you. Remain in Me, I also am in you. According as the branch can not be bringing forth fruit from itself, if it should not be remaining in the grapevine, thus neither you, if you should not be remaining in Me.”
Jesus also said in John 13:15 and 17: “For an example have I given you, that, according as I do to you, you also may be doing. If you are aware of these things, happy are you if you should be doing them.”
We can be so set in rigidly thinking that we are living under grace, that we think we must forsake any works. Yes, we should rightly divide the word, but we should not ignore the rest of Scripture that is not in the Prison Letters. At the 2008 fellowship weekend, I gave a talk entitled, “The Missing Pages”. I started off by saying, “This is an old Bible. All the pages of Paul’s letters have been removed. From a distance you might not see any difference. Someone unfamiliar with it, could read THIS Bible from Genesis to Revelation and not know that there was anything missing.” I continued, “We do need the whole book, even though not all of it is written TO us or FOR us, because we cannot understand the so-called ‘Christian’ Bible without it.” But please do not think that it is only the “Prison Epistles” that we should read. 2 Timothy 3:16 is clear: “ALL Scripture is inspired by God, and is beneficial for teaching, for exposure, for correction, for discipline in righteousness, that the man of God may be equipped, fitted out for every good act.” So keep not just Paul’s letters in our bibles, keep the whole book.
Nevertheless, Paul wrote these words in Ephesians 2:8: “For in grace, through faith, are you saved, and this is not out of you; it is God’s approach present, not of works, lest anyone should be boasting.” And the very next verse reads: “For His achievement are we, being created in Christ Jesus FOR GOOD WORKS, which God makes ready beforehand, that we should be walking in them.” “For good works” - in other words, fruit. One way we can tell who is a true follower of Christ is by their fruits. Matthew 7:15 reads, “Beware of false prophets, which come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ravening wolves. Ye shall know them by their fruits.”
Only as we come to Christ believing all He has done for us, is there any possibility of growing into His likeness. God tells us through the Apostle Paul, in 2 Corinthians 3:18: “Now we all, with uncovered face, mirroring the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into the same image, from glory to glory, even as from the Lord, the spirit.” How much more mature and glorious do you want to get? This is the climax of glory for believers - transformed into the same image as the Lord.
Yet some believers feel they are insignificant. The danger then, is that they will fall for one or more of these false teachings. But they are just the people whom God can use.
The Lord knows those who are His. This is made plain in 2 Timothy 2:19. But before that, Paul writes that we are to endeavour to present ourselves to God qualified, an unashamed worker, correctly cutting the word of truth. And to stand aloof from profane prattlings. Why? Because they lead to irreverence which spreads like gangrene.
In 1 Corinthians 8, Paul discusses idol sacrifices. Although we don’t concern ourselves today with whether we should eat meat offered to idols, the principle is relevant for us. Mature believers know that there is no difference between food offered to idols and any other. They know that they may freely eat, but not before ‘babes in Christ’. So it is possible to do many things with a clear conscience before God, but which might offend some of our brethren and cause them to stumble. What we do or say must be done with love, rather than flaunting our so called superior knowledge.
Maturity voluntarily limits itself for the sake of the immature. Maturity does not demand that the immature grow up. The greatest practical example of this, is Christ Himself. Do you think He was was surrounded by mature believers? Yet this is one of the reasons He chose His disciples: Mark 3:14:
“And He makes twelve, whom He also names apostles, that they may be with Him, and that He may be commissioning them to herald ....”
Paul warns that knowledge puffs up, yet love builds up. And if someone thinks he has all the answers, all the correct doctrines, Paul warns, he knows nothing.
Am I saying, then, that we shouldn’t read our Bibles? That education is a waste of time? NO, because that is NOT what the Scriptures teach. I repeat what Paul wrote to Timothy: “Endeavour to present yourself to God qualified, an unashamed workman correctly cutting the word of truth.”
God’s Word is ONE of the ways God communicates to us. Without studying the Scriptures, it would be like being completely deaf in one ear, and only faintly hearing the odd word in the other.
It is probably best, if we don’t know how far along the road to maturity we are. Where on a scale of 0 to 5 we are. We might well feel superior or inferior. Might feel superior or inferior? No ‘perhaps’ about it. We would feel one or the other, and either would be wrong! Another way that God communicates to us, is through fellowship with believers.
Why has God brought into His ecclesia so many different people? We are a right mixture! Young and old, male and female, black, white, yellow, rich and poor, bright and not so bright. One reason of course, is so that no one could boast that God had to call them because they were so clever and spiritual. God has placed the members, each one of us, in His body according as He wills. Paul makes an astounding statement in 1 Corinthians 12:22: “Nay, much rather, those members of the body supposed to be inherently weaker are NECESSARY.” Yes, necessary. God blends the body together. Why? One reason is that we then have an opportunity to be mutually solicitous for one another. It goes against our natural inclination to love one another. If it were natural we wouldn’t be urged to love one another.
The next chapter leads on to LOVE. I can have all the knowledge, all the prophecies, all the secrets, all the FAITH, yes, all the faith, but if I do not have LOVE, I am NOTHING. That is straight talking. No ifs, buts or maybes, I am nothing.
“If we should be saying that we are having fellowship with Him and should be walking in darkness, we are lying and are not doing the truth. Yet if we should be walking in the light as He is in the light, we are having fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus, His Son, is cleansing us from every sin” (1 John 1:6-8). In verses 3-4, John reports what he had seen and heard, so “that you too may be having fellowship with us, and yet this fellowship of ours is with the Father and with His Son, Jesus Christ.” Don’t think that just because it is the Apostle John writing this, that it has no relevance to us today.
Paul wrote to the Roman ecclesia (15:4): “For whatever was written before, was written for this teaching of ours ...”
John continues in his first letter (3:13-14) “Marvel not, brethren, if the world is hating you. We are aware that we have proceeded out of death into life, for we are loving our brethren.” Love of the brethren continues in 4:7-8, “Beloved, we should be loving one another, for love is of God.... He who is not loving, knew not God, for God is love.” Verse 11, “Beloved if thus God loves us, we also ought to be loving one another.”
John’s evangel records what Christ Himself told His disciples (in 13:34), “A new precept am I giving to you, that you be loving one another; according as I love you, that you also be loving one another.” In loving the brethren, we bring glory to God. How? Verse 35, “By this, all shall be knowing that you are My disciples, if you should be having love for another.” The evangel is being preached by loving the brethren.
But how can we love the brethren, how can we know the brethren, if we are never in contact with each other? That is the beauty of these fellowship meetings, and others like it. What is the alternative? The Corinthian ecclesia were warned not to be yoked with unbelievers. But that does not mean we cannot have an occasional meal or chat with unbelievers. Nevertheless, true fellowship is with other believers, so that we might also have fellowship with the Father and His Son.
Yes, but other like-minded believers might be on the other side of the country or the world. What then? We could do what Paul and the other apostles did - write letters. The modern equivalent might also include cards, telephone calls, emails, Skype, FaceTime.
I, personally, have been greatly blessed in the past year by the support of brethren. How many of them, do you think live in my village of 350 residents? Yes, I have wonderful neighbours, but I have learnt that true fellowship is vital to our growth as believers. Letters, cards, phone calls and emails have been a lifeline. I am not going to embarrass anyone here by naming those who have done this for Pauline and me, but you know who you are. Thank you.
We are never too old or mature or steeped in the Scriptures, that we don’t need other people. Especially with those Paul describes as “supposed to be inherently weaker.” ‘Inherently weaker’ according to how some people may view them. But they are still in the body of Christ. We know what Paul thought about this because we have it in Romans 14:1 and 4: “Now the infirm in the faith be taking to yourselves, but not for discriminations of reasonings.” And “Who are you who are judging Another’s domestic? Now he will be made to stand, for the Lord is able to make him stand.”
Christ can and does use ALL the members of His body. 1 Corinthians12:12-14 tells us plainly that the body is not just ONE member, but many. “For even as the body is one and has many members, yet all the members of the one body, being many, are one body, thus also is the Christ. For in one spirit also we all are baptized into one body, whether Jews or Greeks, whether slaves or free, and all are made to imbibe one spirit. For the body also is not one member, but many....” Verse 19 continues: “Yet now God placed the members, each one of them, in the body according as He wills. Now if it were all one member, where were the body?”
1 Corinthians 12:20-26 is important to enable us to understand what the position the inherently weaker members is: “Yet now there are, indeed, many members, yet one body. Yet the eye can not say to the hand, ‘I have no need of you’ or, again, the head to the feet, ‘I have not need of you.’ Nay, much rather, those members of the body supposed to be inherently weaker are necessary, and which we suppose to be a more dishonoured part of the body, these we are investing with more exceeding honour, and our indecent members have more exceeding respectability. Now our respectable members have not need, but God blends the body together, giving to that which is deficient more exceeding honour, that there may be no schism in the body, but the members may be mutually solicitous for one another. And whether one member is suffering, all the members are sympathising, or one member is being esteemed, all the members are rejoicing with it.”
Why does God do it like this? Well, we have just read it - “that there may be no schism in the body and that we will love each other” Ephesians 4:15-16: “Now, being true, in love we should be making all grow into Him, Who is the Head - Christ - out of Whom the entire body, being articulated together and united through every assimilation of the supply, in accord with the operation in measure of each one’s part, is making for the growth of the body, for the upbuilding of itself in love.” In other words - all the members by speaking the truth in love, grow by being united with each other and with Christ by each part doing its share.
IT IS DIFFICULT, IF NOT IMPOSSIBLE, TO REALLY GROW SPIRITUALLY WITHOUT FELLOWSHIP OF SOME SORT. I don’t have a Scripture that uses that exact phrase, but a basic Scripture which applies universally is Proverbs 27:17: “As iron sharpens iron, so a man sharpens the acumen of his associate.” No-one knows or understands everything. We can learn things that we never knew before even from so called ‘babes in Christ’. We are all ‘rough diamonds’ in some respect. We need the edges to be smoothed.
I started this talk by quoting Paul in 1 Corinthians 1:19 “.. that not many wise, powerful, noble, are chosen, but it is the stupidity of this world that God chooses....” Included in that number will be people, that if we were honest, we would prefer not to be with. While we may not hate them positively, we certainly like them less. To say or pretend that we do love them, when in fact we do not, is sheer hypocrisy. Perhaps in this life we can never like them, but before the bema, we most certainly will. We need to remember that we are all members of the Body of Christ, chosen by God Himself. We often see the faults in others that we have in ourselves. Who are we to criticise the individuals whom God has seen fit to call to Him, in this eon? It is a fact that we are ALL blessed with every spiritual blessing among the celestials, in Christ, as He chooses us in Him before the disruption of the world. We have ALL been designated for the place of a son for Him through Christ Jesus.
So perhaps now, we can see what I meant earlier when I said that it would foolishness to send a questionnaire to us before we were allowed to attend this weekend. I remember David, our Secretary, telling me years ago, that the trustees never decide what the theme of a weekend should be. It is left to the individual speakers to be directed by the Spirit to choose. We have seen during these weekends that ALL have benefited from the same talk, perhaps in different ways, whatever our maturity.
I have emphasised not to be so worried about whether we are growing or not. God is more than capable of getting the message through to us. But it is encouraging to occasionally notice improvement.
How can we tell whether we are growing? We will become aware, sometimes painfully aware, that in some things we do not measure up to our calling. We are then forced to put our trust in the living God. Instead of getting upset because things haven’t gone the way we wanted, we will rest in the Lord. We will recognise that it is not our righteousness that counts, it is God’s righteousness which saves us by GRACE, not by us keeping man-made regulations. We will be “testing what things are of consequence” (Philippians 1:10). Why? Because we will be sincere and no stumbling block, for the day of Christ fitted with the fruit of righteousness that is through Jesus Christ for the glory and laud of God.
There it is again, God’s righteousness for HIS glory and praise. Not for our glory and praise. How? By not being configured to this eon, but by being transformed by the renewing of our mind. God’s spirit operating in us to be growing in maturity. All this without murmurings and reasonings (Philippians 2:16).
Perhaps we wouldn’t be so keen to grow in maturity, if we knew that maturity only comes with suffering!
I shall end by quoting the last verses of Ecclesiastes 12 (9-14):
“Yet furthermore, because the Assembler was wise, he still taught the people knowledge, and he listened and investigated and set in order many proverbs. The Assembler sought to find words of delight and what was written is uprightness and words of truth. The words of the wise are like goad points, and like imbedded bolts is the possessing of gathered sayings. They are given by one shepherd. Yet furthermore, my son, beyond these, be warned; ‘Of the making of many scrolls there is no end, and much study is weariness to the flesh’.“The terminus of the whole matter has been heard: Fear the One, Elohim, and keep His instructions, for this is the whole duty of humanity. For the One, Elohim, shall bring every deed into judgment on concerning all that is obscured, whether good or whether evil.”