I Peter 2:1 | I John 2:12-14
In the previous blog, I wrote about the only atmosphere wherein spiritual growth is possible; the belief the goal of the Christian life is not to ‘go to a place’ but ‘get to a place.’ In other words, the goal of Christian living is to reach maximum spiritual maturity so we glorify God through abundant fruitfulness. That does not mean a believer who dies does not go to be in the presence of the Lord. It just means the ultimate issue is what condition we are in when we arrive there, not merely that we get there.
For this reason, the Bible is crystal clear when it comes to describing the stages of spiritual development, though most in the Church are not. There is a general vagueness when it comes to understanding spiritual development. Since most have made ‘going to a place’ rather than ‘getting to a place’ the goal of the Christian life, it stands to reason that we remain vague when it comes to the stages of spiritual development enumerated in Scripture. Since all who know Christ are going to the same place, what need is there to understand the stages of spiritual development that God has called believers to?
But the moment we realize the Christian life is about reaching full maturity in Christ the more important it becomes to grasp the clearly defined stages of growth laid out in Scripture. They are basically three: children, young men, and fathers as mentioned by John in his first letter (I John 2:12-14). I have added one before these three from Peter’s first letter (I Peter 2:2) so there are a total of four. In a word, we start the Christian life as infants, move into childhood, develop into young manhood, and reach maximum maturity as fathers.
First a brief word before looking at each of these. We notice John uses the male gender to describe each of these stages. This is not meant to exclude women in any way. When it comes to gender God seems to use both male and female to convey spiritual reality. If men can be the bride, then women can be sons.
Just as we came into the natural world as infants, so also do we in Christ. Peter uses the Greek word brephos, which is a newborn. The most obvious characteristic of these newborns is their insatiable hunger for spiritual milk. Newborns can’t provide milk for themselves; others must give such spiritual milk to them. A church is blessed when it is full of these spiritual babes. Every church therefore should ask the Father for regular conversions so that they are filled with these spiritual babes.
For the three remaining stages of spiritual development we turn to John. It seems clear that when John addresses these groups in the Church he is referring to stages of spiritual development rather than physical age groups. He starts with little children, the translation of the Greek term, teknion. These are identified as those whose “sins are forgiven for his name’s sake” (I John 2:12). It is that stage where we become aware of the love of God and that God is a Savior for us in Jesus. It is what Jesus meant when he told his disciples, “unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:2). Children are simple and trusting when it comes to believing their parents love for them. And so do we when we are little children in Christ. Understood in this way, we should never grow out of this stage.
But little children can be blessedly self-centered, thinking the universe revolves around them. They must learn to leave childhood behind and grow into young manhood (neaniskos). This is the teenager stage of Christian development where a young man has grown out of childhood and grown strong. Why? Because they have allowed the word of God to abide in them so that they have overcome the evil one (I John 2:14). As teenagers display endless energy and stamina, so this is a very active stage of Christian development.
What is the number one evidence that one has reached this level? Perhaps we should say it is responsibility. When I was a little child in Christ I still practiced unclean habits that God didn’t seem to be concerned about. I lived with a constant sense of God’s love no matter what I did. But as I grew in Christ, I began to sense that the Father was not pleased with some of my habits and that I needed to change. In a word, I must “overcome the evil one.” I could no longer make excuses for my behavior. Through an abiding relationship with the Word of God, I learned I no longer had to be overcome by sin.
But that is not the highest stage of spiritual development. The final stage is that of fathers (I John 2:14). John describes them as those who “know him who is from the beginning.” What makes one a father? Simply stated, reproduction. One has reached this level of spiritual development when he or she no longer lives for himself/herself, but for others.
I remember when the Father first started speaking to me about reaching this stage of spiritual maturity. I got excited as I thought about being a father until it dawned on me that a father wants his children to do better than him. If a man has a business, which he turns over to his son, does he not want his son to exceed him? Yes; in every way, a father longs that his son is much more successful than he ever was. That’s when I realized that this stage is the most selfless stage of Christian maturity where we learn to live for others. Paul exhibits his father heart in his twin letters to his spiritual son, Timothy. He also reveals it in the first chapter of Philippians where he sees his own imprisonment from the vantage point of how it causes others to be bolder in their proclamation of the Gospel (Philippians 1:12-14).
After reading these two blogs on spiritual development, take some time pondering where you are on the continuum of spiritual development.