What is true maturity? Why do we need it? How do we get it? In this sermon, we discuss what it means to be a mature Christian and how the answer might not be what we expect.

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    Several years ago, the Naval Admiral William McRaven gave the commencement speech at the University of Texas, which subsequently went viral. At this point, literally millions of people have viewed or read this speech. He kept it brief, but he shared a number of anecdotes from his experience going through Navy SEAL training in order to illustrate some important life lessons, such as: Life is not fair, so get used to it. You will often fail, and that's part of the process. The line that made him famous was: Make your bed. He explained that part of the training as a Navy SEAL involves making your bed every morning. He said, 

    “We were required to make our bed to perfection. It seemed a little ridiculous at the time, particularly in light of the fact that we were aspiring to be real warriors, tough battle-hardened SEALs, but the wisdom of this simple act has been proven to me many times over. If you make your bed every morning you will have accomplished the first task of the day. It will give you a small sense of pride, and it will encourage you to do another task and another and another. By the end of the day, that one task completed will have turned into many tasks completed. Making your bed will also reinforce the fact that little things in life matter. If you can’t do the little things right, you will never do the big things right. And, if by chance you have a miserable day, you will come home to a bed that is made — that you made — and a made bed gives you encouragement that tomorrow will be better. If you want to change the world, start off by making your bed.”

    It's a good speech, and it was well delivered. What's intriguing to me is that the advice that he offered, while solid, was not especially profound. Yet many people would say, That's the best motivational speech that I've ever heard. What does that tell you? It tells me that there are a lot of people who feel adrift, who feel overwhelmed and confused by the chaotic and uncertain world in which we live. There's far too few mentors. There's not nearly enough people to provide us with moral guidance, or practical wisdom in order to help us grow up to become responsible adults. The Apostle Paul understands that need. And the question of what does it mean to be mature was just as important in Paul's day as it is in our own. Yet, we might find that Paul's answer to that question surprises us. 

    We're in the midst of a close study of the opening four chapters of Paul's letter to the Corinthians, so let me provide a little context. Paul first traveled to this Greek city of Corinth around the year 50 AD, and there he presented the gospel of Jesus. Despite the reputation of Corinth, and to Paul's own surprise, large numbers of people received the message and became Christians by putting their faith and trust in Jesus. As a result of that, Paul decides to stay in Corinth for 18 months, longer than he had previously stayed anywhere else. But after that year and a half period, he crosses the Aegean Sea, and goes to the city of Ephesus. While he is gone, everything that he had worked so hard to build, is now in danger of collapse. While he's in Ephesus, he receives a report that the Christians in Corinth have divided into factions. They've created cults of personality around certain leaders, and now, the church is in danger of breaking apart. 

    The question is, who were these people around whom so many had gathered? I believe that Paul is being very delicate here. When we look at the passage that is before us today, it will become clear that, yes, there were people that were loyal to Paul, and there were people that were loyal to Apollos, his colleague, but I don't think that's the real issue. I think the real issue is with the people that Paul doesn't name. He's being very careful to avoid naming names, because some people will be too sensitive to name. So who were these people? If Paul claimed to be an apostle, they claimed to be super apostles. There's a group of people that came into Corinth after Paul had left. We know from previous weeks that Paul himself was not much to look at, or to listen to, but the so-called “super apostles” cut a fine figure, and they had the gift of oratory. They came into Corinth. They said to the Christians there that Paul got them started on the right path, but the problem with Paul is that his message was so basic. He merely offered them milk, but they could provide the meat. They could provide the steak. As a result, they could raise the Corinthian Christians to new heights in spirituality. 

    So what exactly did this look like in practice? If you read through the Corinthian correspondence, it seems clear that these "super apostles" emphasized knowledge and experience. On the one hand, they claimed that they had spiritual knowledge that you couldn't find anywhere else. They had tapped into the mysteries of God, and they could lead you into a deeper knowledge of God. They could lead you into the deep things of God. Then on the other hand, they also emphasized experience. They could lead you into a deeper supernatural experience of God, which was most likely communicated through dramatic, charismatic gifts that not everyone else had. As a result, these "super apostles" created a kind of spiritual elite. There were some who were in the know, and then others who were not. From my point of view, I would say that every last one of us is susceptible to this kind of thing—to be taken in by this kind of teaching. I won't name names, either, but there was a time in my own past when I was in an especially ardent stage of faith where I was attracted to this kind of thing. My wife, Ashley, can tell you about it. There were people who showed up in my life and said, look, the Christian mentors that you have, have gotten you started on the right path in high school and college, but there's more. There's more that you can know. There's more that you can experience. At the time, I thought, well, who doesn't want a richer, deeper experience of God, but over time, and in large measure thanks to Ashley, I essentially saw through this. I saw through this, and I realized that these people really are just spiritual hucksters who are trying to sell something. 

    Here's a funny example of this. There was one person in particular who claimed to have the gift of prophecy. He prophesied over me and he said, you're about to graduate from college, and even though you've got this job lined up in finance, I perceive that you're going to become a man of God. You're going to become a minister of the word. Here's the place where I believe he got his wires crossed because then he said, I received a word from the Lord: Don't become a Presbyterian! I thought, well, you know, there might be something here, but maybe you have to tune the frequency a little bit because I think I'm supposed to become a Presbyterian. So here I am. I think we're all susceptible to this sort of thing, especially if we're in a more ardent stage of faith, but here's the upshot. These "super apostles" claimed that they were the mature Christians and everybody else, they’re all just babies. Paul flips everything around and shows us that it might be quite the opposite that is true. 

    I'd like us to consider: What is true maturity, why do we need it, and how do we get it? We'll do that by taking a close look at a few verses from 1 Corinthians. I'll be reading from 1 Corinthians 2:14-3:4,

    14The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned. 15The spiritual person judges all things, but is himself to be judged by no one. 16“For who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

    1But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. 2I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. And even now you are not yet ready, 3for you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? 4For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?

    This is God's word. It's trustworthy, and it's true, and it's given to us in love. 

    What Is Christian Maturity?

    Here at the very outset, we see that Paul draws a contrast between what he calls a natural person and a spiritual person. If we're going to use older theological language, we could say he's trying to contrast between the unregenerate and the regenerate, or between the unconverted and the converted. What is he talking about? A natural person for Paul simply means an ordinary human being. Someone who is not yet a Christian. Someone who has not yet been raised to new life in Christ. If that's true, what's a spiritual person? He’s not saying a spiritual person is someone who is focused on ethereal realities or detached from the real world in which we live. A spiritual person for Paul is simply someone in whom the Spirit of God dwells. That's true of every Christian. The very moment that you put your faith in Jesus, when you are united to him by faith, God's Spirit—the very spirit of Jesus—dwells within you. You could never know anything about the transcendent Almighty God unless God revealed himself to you, and that's what God has done. God reveals himself to you through his Spirit—the Spirit comes and dwells within you so that you might know who God is. For Paul, a natural person is simply someone who is not yet a Christian, and a spiritual person is someone who is a Christian—someone in whom the Spirit dwells. 

    The gift of the Holy Spirit is not reserved for a select few. This is the gift to all Christians. In fact, it is impossible to be a Christian without the work of God's Spirit in your life. Look again at v.14. Paul says, “The natural person does not accept the things of the Spirit of God, for they are folly to him, and he is not able to understand them because they are spiritually discerned.” The truth about God—the truth about who he is, what he has done, what he will do, in and through the person of Jesus—can only be discerned through the Spirit of God. Apart from the Spirit of God, the truth of who God is, and what he's done for us through Jesus is folly. It's foolishness. It just sounds ridiculous and stupid. It could only be discerned through the Spirit. Then in v.16, you'll see that Paul alludes to Isaiah 40, where the prophet Isaiah asks, “who has understood the mind of the Lord so as to instruct him?” What a great question. What human being could possibly claim that they have the wisdom to be able to give God advice. Not one of us could do that. God is in a category all to himself. No human being could claim to understand the inner workings of God's mind. Then Paul makes this astounding claim that we have the mind of Christ. We have the mind of Christ. If God places his spirit within you, he actually shares God's mind with you, which changes your own thinking. The Holy Spirit not only reveals to you the truth about God, but actually shares God's mind with you so that you can understand the truth that has been revealed. The Spirit reveals God's truth and shares God's mind. We have the mind of Christ. God develops within us a spirit generated ability to understand the truths that God reveals to us. 

    If that's true, what does it mean to be a mature Christian? Does it mean that you know things that other Christians can't know? Does it mean that you experience things that other Christians can't experience? Definitely not, because if you are a Christian, you have the Spirit. If you have the Spirit, you have the mind of Christ. We all have the mind of Christ. There's no secret hidden knowledge of God that is the reserve of some and not all. That's why Paul says in v.15, that no Christian can stand in judgment over another because we all have access to the same truth. We all have access to the same mind of Christ. 

    Here's the point: To be mature does not mean that you have arrived. It doesn't mean that you have mastered the Christian life. It simply means that your life is now being directed and controlled by the Spirit of God, rather than your flesh. What does Paul mean by that? He often sets up this contrast between the Spirit and the flesh—the Greek word sarx. When we hear that we often think that it’s referring to our bodies or our bodily desires and appetites, but that's not how Paul uses it. For Paul, the flesh is not the soft tissue covering our bones. It's not merely our bodily appetites or desires, but rather, the flesh represents our old fallen self that is dominated and controlled by sin. When you put your faith in Jesus, the power of sin is broken in your life. Now you have the freedom to live differently. But the presence of sin has not yet been eradicated. Therefore the life of a Christian in this world is a life of conflict between the Spirit at work within you on the one hand, and your old flesh—your old self that's dominated and controlled by sin. That's why Paul will say in Romans 8:4, “walk not according to the flesh but according to the Spirit.” If you think that you are mature in yourself, trust me, you're not. If you know you're not mature. If you know you're not the person that you're supposed to be. If you know that you are not yet your truest self—not yet fully human, because by God's Spirit, he can raise you to new life in Christ. If you know that you need the Spirit's help each and every day at every moment, then you're on the right path. 

    Why Do We Need Christian Maturity? 

    If that's what maturity is, why do we need it? Why is it so important? To put it simply, because immaturity is embarrassing. Immaturity is embarrassing. If you're an immature Christian, it's a little bit like looking at a grown man wearing a diaper and drinking milk from a bottle. That is the image that Paul's trying to get across here. The purpose of being born is to grow up. Look at what Paul says in 3:1, “But I, brothers, could not address you as spiritual people, but as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ.” As mere babies because you are merely human. 

    Let's unpack this sentence a little bit. Paul addresses the Corinthians as brothers, and the Greek word there would be inclusive, so we could translate that as brothers or sisters. The point is, he's addressing them as fellow members of God's family—brothers and sisters—which means that they are fellow believers. These are Christians, and if they're Christians, they should be spiritual people. People in whom the Spirit dwells. People whom the Spirit has raised to new life in Christ. People who have the mind of Christ. Yet Paul goes on to say that though they are Christians, he says he could not address them as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ, as mere babies. In other words, he's saying that even though they are Christians, they are so immature in their thinking, it is almost as if they're not Christians at all. We've all met people like this. We've all met people who seem to have a spark of genuine faith, who seem to have had an experience of grace and forgiveness, but over time, we noticed there's absolutely no movement. There's no growth. There's no development. It's almost as if they're not Christians at all. Then the question is: How do you know if you're a baby? How do you know if you're a spiritual baby? Paul gives us two tests. One has to do with diet, and the other has to do with behavior. 

    Here's the irony. The Corinthians had accused Paul of presenting a message that was too basic, too simple. They said it was like milk. Whereas the super apostles, they provided the steak. They wanted a deeper spiritual knowledge, a richer, supernatural experience. But Paul flips everything around here, and says that the problem was not his lack of wisdom, or his inability to communicate effectively (since he didn't have the gift of rhetoric), but rather, the issue was their inability to understand the wisdom of God that he did offer. In v.2, he kind of sticks it to them. He says, you know what? You're right. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for it. Even now, you're not yet ready

    Think about the image here. Milk is rich in nutrients, but milk at the end of the day is food that has been processed by another. That's all milk is. Milk is food that has been processed by another. The reason why we give milk to babies is because their stomachs have not developed sufficiently enough to be able to handle solid food. So the first test that Paul wants to give us is: Look at your diet. What kind of spiritual food are you consuming? Are you still drinking milk out of a bottle or are you ready for solids? How do you know if you're a baby? First of all, look at your diet, but then second of all, he says: Look at your behavior. These Corinthian Christians claim to be so much wiser, so much more experienced, but Paul tells them well look at your behavior. He goes to v.3-4, “For you are still of the flesh. For while there is jealousy and strife among you, are you not of the flesh and behaving only in a human way? For when one says, “I follow Paul,” and another, “I follow Apollos,” are you not being merely human?” Not the new human that you're meant to be in Christ. 

    If you're trying to show off your spiritual knowledge or experience—that you can do more than everybody else, that you know more than everybody else—if you're creating these cults of personality around certain leaders, if you're leading the church into strife and division, if you're riddled with jealousy, then in what possible sense could you say that you are a mature Christian? What's missing in their lives? They've got spiritual knowledge. They've got spiritual experience. But what they don't have is love. If you get that right, it puts 1 Corinthians 13, in an entirely different light. 

    I love this because 1 Corinthians 13 is perhaps the passage in the Bible that is most famous because of what it tells us about love. Many people choose to have that chapter of 1 Corinthians read at their weddings because they believe that it's presenting this soaring ode to love, but in reality, in the context of the Corinthian situation, what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 13 is not this soaring praise of love, but rather a stern rebuke to the Corinthians because of what they are missing. So let me read it to you one more time, with fresh ears. Listen to it now. Paul writes, 

    1If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. 2And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. 3If I give away all I have, and if I deliver up my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing.

    4Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

    8Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. 9For we know in part and we prophesy in part, 10but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

    13So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love.

    Do you see what Paul is saying? You might know the Bible inside and out. You might know all the finer points of theology, but if you don't know how to love people, you're an idiot. You might possess dramatic charismatic gifts. You might enjoy supernatural experiences. You might be able to converse with the angels, but if you don't know how to love people, you're just a babbling baby. 

    How Do We Attain Christian Maturity?

    If that's what maturity is and why we need it, how do we get it? How do we actually attain it? I bet that many of you might think that the way in which you begin the Christian life is by receiving the message of the gospel, but the way in which you grow as a Christian is by moving on to more advanced teaching or more advanced methods. That would be completely wrong because that is the exact mistake that the Corinthians made that Paul is seeking to correct. We never grow beyond the gospel of Jesus Christ to something more because there is nothing more. There is nothing better. There's nothing deeper, or more profound. If you were to move to something more than the gospel, it would lead you away from the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. 

    Listen to how the New Testament Scholar Don Carson puts this point. He writes, 

    “The gospel is not a minor theme that deals with the point of entry into the Christian way, to be followed by a lot of material that actually brings about life transformation…Preaching the gospel, it is argued, is announcing how to be saved from God’s condemnation…But for actual transformation to take place, you need to take a lot of discipleship courses, spiritual enrichment courses…and the like. You need to learn journaling, or asceticism, or the simple lifestyle, or Scripture memorization…

    Not for a moment would I speak against the potential for good of all of these steps; rather, I am speaking against the tendency to treat these as post-gospel disciplines, disciplines divorced from what God has done in Christ Jesus in the gospel of the crucified and resurrected Lord.

    Failure to see this point has huge and deleterious consequences…First, if the gospel becomes that by which we slip into the kingdom, but all the business of transformation turns on post-gospel disciplines and strategies, then we shall constantly be directing the attention of people away from the gospel, away from the cross and resurrection. Soon the gospel will be something that we quietly assume is necessary for salvation, but not what we are excited about, not what we are preaching, not the power of God. What is really important are the spiritual disciplines. 

    Of course, when we point this out to someone for whom techniques and disciplines are of paramount importance, there is likely to be instant indignation. Of course I believe in the cross and resurrection of Jesus, they say. And doubtless they do. Yet the question remains: What are they excited about? Where do they rest their confidence? On what does their hope of transformation depend?”

    You may recall that earlier in chapter two, Paul retells the Corinthians about when he first came to Corinth, at the beginning of that 18 month period. He tells them that when I came to you, I did not proclaim the testimony of God in lofty speech, or wisdom, but instead, I determined to know nothing among you. I determined to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified. What is Paul saying there? Is Paul saying that for 18 months, he delivered the same exact evangelistic message, day in and day out, for a year and a half: Jesus died on the cross for your sins, that you might be forgiven and reconciled to God, so put your faith in Jesus and become a Christian. Did he deliver that same message, every day for a year and a half? No, I don't think that's what he's saying. What Paul is saying is that no matter what issue, no matter what question, regardless of the context or the circumstances, everything must be drawn back to the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. No matter what issue he continues to confront, he addresses it by centering everything on the cross and resurrection of Jesus because there is no other way to understand how we're meant to live the Christian life apart from the gospel.

    This letter actually provides us a model for that because as we continue reading through 1 Corinthians, you'll see that Paul systematically addresses one issue in the Corinthian church after another. No matter what the issue is: cliques, divisions within the church, sexual misbehavior, the abuse of spiritual gifts, the misuse of the Lord's Supper—no matter what the issue is, he brings the Corinthians back to the cross so that they could think it through from the standpoint of the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. What the Corinthians had failed to remember is that not only is there no Christ without the cross, but there are no Christians without crosses either. There is meant to be a cross shaped pattern to our lives. The pattern of the cross is meant to shape everything we do and say and think. Therefore, if you think you can move beyond the cross to something else, then you are on the wrong path, and you are headed for disaster. We determine to know nothing but Jesus Christ and him crucified. That's the only way to true maturity. 

    As it turns out, through the rhetoric that Paul is using, in this chapter of 1 Corinthians, he's trying to show us that the gospel of Jesus is both the milk and the solid food. As milk, the gospel is the message of salvation. Jesus died on the cross in your place, so that you might be forgiven and reconciled to God so that you might be raised to new life, so that the Spirit of God might dwell within you, so that you might become fully human—your truest self. But you see, as the solid food, the gospel is also the understanding that every aspect of our lives is built on that one, same foundation. We never grow out of the gospel to something else, but rather we grow deeper into the cross, and more fully understand all of its implications for absolutely every aspect of our lives. 

    Jesus famously told his followers that we are supposed to not only receive children, but imitate them. He said, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of God. What did Jesus mean by that? Was Jesus saying that we should become immature? Was Jesus suggesting that we should become moody, petulant, self absorbed? No, what Jesus said is that we should become a child in the sense that we put simple childlike trust in our Heavenly Father who loves us, who cares for us, and who will take care of our every need, not that we should become immature. In other words, Jesus was calling us to become child-like, but not childish. In a similar way, in 1 Corinthians 14, Paul says, we should trust like children, but we should think like adults. Why? Because we have the mind of Christ. In other words, don't be a baby. 

    Let me pray for us. 

    Father, we thank you, that through your Holy Spirit, you grant us your very own mind, so that we might be able to understand the truth of who you are, and all that you've done for us in through the cross and the resurrection of Jesus. We pray that you would help us to grow up into maturity, not by moving beyond the gospel to something else, but by going deeper into the riches of the gospel, so that we might grow and develop and mature and become the people that you have destined us to be. We ask that you would do that work in us by your grace and through your Holy Spirit's power. It's in Jesus' name we pray, Amen.