The Challenges of Spiritual Maturity
“I am now ready to be offered, and the time of my departure is at hand. I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing” (2 Timothy 4:6-8).
By Robert Brand
The title of this article is taken from the words of the Apostle Paul in the opening text above. Paul perceived that his earthly life was shortly coming to an end, and he expressed a sense of confidence that he had “kept the faith.” This expression is similar to the admonition recorded in 2 Peter 1:10, “Wherefore the rather, brethren, give diligence to make your calling and election sure: for if ye do these things, ye shall never fall.”
The Apostle’s assurance of being found faithful at the end of his earthly life seems like a greater sense of confidence than that found in Philippians 3:10‑14: “That I may know him, and the power of his resurrection, and the fellowship of his sufferings, being made conformable unto his death; If by any means I might attain unto the resurrection of the dead. Not as though I had already attained, either were already perfect: but I follow after, if that I may apprehend that for which also I am apprehended of Christ Jesus. Brethren, I count not myself to have apprehended: but this one thing I do, forgetting those things which are behind, and reaching forth unto those things which are before, I press toward the mark for the prize of the high calling of God in Christ Jesus.”
Is there a meaningful difference between “I count not myself to have apprehended” and “I have finished my course” and “kept the faith”? We think there is. The difference in Paul’s early perception of his degree of faithfulness to his vow of consecration and obedience to the Lord, and his latter thoughts expressed in 2 Timothy, express a personal realization of the progress he had made in the ministry the Lord called him to.1
(1) One may wonder how much time elapsed between Paul’s tentative statement in 2 Timothy 4 and his statement in Philippians 3. No one knows precisely how much time elapsed between the two scripture references, but a reasonable suggestion is that Philippians was written around 62 AD, and 2 Timothy was written around 67 AD — only a five year span of time.
(A note of possible interest: Paul appeared to “average up” a time period, as is seen by comparing Acts 19:8‑10 and Acts 20:31.) In any case, we suggest that the Apostle Paul’s progress in the Narrow Way might have been quicker than for most of the Lord’s people. He was a chosen Apostle with a specific and declared mission, and had a personal revelation of the glorified Lord (Acts 9:3-9). His “abundance of revelations” (2 Corinthians 12:7) might have influenced his rapid growth in the fruits and graces of the Spirit.
Look for Progress
Like Paul, we should also be able to see distinct progress in the fruits and graces of the Spirit as we advance in our Christian walk, progressing from “babes in Christ,” to spiritual maturity. The Heavenly Father is selecting and developing a Bride of Christ (2 Corinthians 11:2) to have the privilege of assisting our risen Lord in the great work of the Kingdom, and in the ages to come. Those who become spirit‑begotten have been specially chosen for this unique calling and reward.
Though anyone can make a determined effort to follow biblically‑based righteous principles, no one can independently decide to be part of the “little flock.” That opportunity for that reward is exclusive to those whom God has called in this Gospel Age. This calling is not automatic because we have been raised in the Truth, or because we find God’s plan of the ages to be inspiring. Just as the Heavenly Father selected the apostles, and directed Jesus to personally minister to them (see Luke 6:12,13 and John 17:9), God now selects those who have the capacity for faithfulness unto death, being able to make their “calling and election sure,” and fill a position in the glorified body of Christ. Baptism does not equal spirit begettal. Spirit begettal occurs when someone accepts the calling of God. It is a rare and precious opportunity, with a special reward. We are privileged to live at a time in God’s plan when such a wonderful invitation and reward are offered.
“And I, brethren, could not speak unto you as unto spiritual, but as unto carnal, even as unto babes in Christ. I have fed you with milk, and not with meat” (1 Corinthians 3:1, 2). Even if we come into the Truth with a rich background of scriptural instruction, we all start the Christian walk as the Apostle Peter described in 1 Peter 2:2,3. “As newborn babes, desire the sincere milk of the word, that ye may grow thereby: If so be ye have tasted that the Lord is gracious.” Every one of the Lord’s people progress in the Narrow Way differently. We all have unique backgrounds, gifts, talents, and strengths, as well as shortcomings. However, all of us do have precisely the same objective, to “make your calling and election sure” (2 Peter 1:10).
Carefulness Always Appropriate
As we mature in Christ, after many years in the consecrated walk, we might assume that most of our rigorous battles against the fallen human nature, and the Adversary, are over. Many brethren have found, however, that such is not the case. Despite victories over self, fought long ago, human weaknesses can rise up again to challenge our spiritual maturity. This can catch us off guard, causing one to wonder, “I dealt with that issue so long ago, and overcame the temptation. How could I possibly fail the test now?”
A poetic verse in Song of Solomon (2:15) is at times quoted when discussing the discipline involved in overcoming the world, the flesh, and the Adversary. “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil the vines: for our vines have tender grapes.” The NIV translates this verse: “Catch for us the foxes, the little foxes that ruin the vineyards, our vineyards that are in bloom.” Owners of vineyards are always looking out for threats to their crops, and some threats are easy to detect — droughts, frost, and animals, such as birds and racoons. Small foxes, which can do much damage to vineyards, are not so easy to detect, but nonetheless have the ability to destroy a vineyard.
A lesson from this verse is that those endeavoring to live a godly life are often careful to abstain from obvious wrongdoing, but not as careful to guard against “the little foxes” — small transgressions that can seriously threaten a godly life. Minor transgressions may seem innocent at the time. However, they can be used by our flesh, and the Adversary, to lead into more serious sins, little by little. Before we know it, our growth in grace and knowledge (2 Peter 3:18) can be severely impeded.
Christians, including those long in the Way with well‑developed characters, must be careful to notice, and eliminate, the seemingly mall sins and oversights that can do great damage to one’s character and hinder being found “faithful unto death” (Revelation 2:10). In the world of today, inappropriate attractions are much more readily at hand. This is one by‑product of the increase of technology. Access now to experiences and information of all kinds, good and bad, are obtainable in an unprecedented way.
This is especially true of the Internet. So much information is readily available on cell phones and in the home — including material that is interesting and enriching, but also material that is contrary to all that is godly. All that endeavor to “live godly in Christ Jesus” must be vigilant to guard against the slightest temptations that can lead to sin, recognizing that sin can be committed in the mind alone. While noted in 1 Corinthians 10:13 that temptations have always been “common to man,” the means by which temptations to sin are presented to the New Creature in Christ have changed with advanced technology.
James 1:14,15 presents what may be called “the chronology of sin.” “But each person is tempted when they are dragged away by their own evil desire and enticed. Then, after desire has conceived, it gives birth to sin; and sin, when it is full‑grown, gives birth to death” (NIV). Our response to an evil temptation is greatly influenced by our fallen nature (“their own evil desire”). If we allow the temptation to proceed into our thoughts, the likely result will be the commission of a sin. Sinful behavior, if unchecked, will lead to a downward spiritual spiral with no good outcome. Efforts to return to purity of mind and action will become that much more difficult. This downward spiral starts with falling into a temptation. If we maintain the integrity we have developed through previous victories in the trials of the Narrow Way, the potential sin can be stopped in its tracks and righteousness will have the victory. Victories against sin — in thought and/or action — are the path to becoming increasingly Christ‑like and proving faithful unto death.
An essential point is that our advancement in the understanding of the Word of God must be directly reflected in becoming more and more Christlike in our behavior. Sometimes this truth is expressed as “growing in grace and knowledge” (2 Peter 3:18). Finally, it is important to rejoice in victories against temptations of the world, the flesh, and the Adversary. Spiritual maturity, cultivated through many years in the Narrow Way, will give us courage to continue the never‑ending battle against sin, which is always “at the door” (Genesis 4:7).
That fight will enhance our ability to understand, and appreciate, the wonderful truths expounded in the scriptures. “But thanks be to God, which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ” (1 Corinthians 15:57).