One of the great insights into the Bible I was taught as a student was the occasional nature of the New Testament books/letters. What this means is that the epistles of the NT (and to some extent, the other books as well) were written with a specific situation(s) in mind. Paul did not just randomly fire off a letter to the Christians in Colossae, for instance. Something was going on in Colossae that called forth the communication from the apostle. Understanding what the occasion of the letter is can be greatly helpful in interpreting and applying the passages within.
In the next use of the word “mature” (Grk. TELEIOS) in the NT, we see Paul explaining his missionary team’s goal among the Colossians. Here is the passage with surrounding context:
“Now I rejoice in my sufferings for your sake, and in my flesh I am filling up what is lacking in Christ's afflictions for the sake of his body, that is, the church, of which I became a minister according to the stewardship from God that was given to me for you, to make the word of God fully known, the mystery hidden for ages and generations but now revealed to his saints. To them God chose to make known how great among the Gentiles are the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ. For this I toil, struggling with all his energy that he powerfully works within me.”
– Colossians 1:24-29
We might think that a missionary’s goal might be to baptize as many people as possible and move on to the next town as quickly as possible to preach to others who had never heard of Jesus. To some extent, that is true, and certainly Paul longed to preach Christ where He had never been heard before (Romans 15:20).
However, here in his letter to Colossae, Paul indicates just getting people wet in a baptistery was not all he wished to do. Here in our passage, Paul does not even mention baptism. Here he says the goal is maturity – “that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” How do they attempt to do so? By proclaiming Jesus, by warning people, and by teaching everyone with wisdom. He concludes by saying that this is what he puts all His energy into. Notice the capital letter on “His.” It is God’s energy and God’s power at work in Paul and his fellows attempting to present all their converts mature in Christ.
Earlier in the paragraph, he is more specific in what this all involves, talking of making the word of God fully known to the saints. So what do we learn about spiritual maturity here? It is a goal of all good evangelism. It comes after baptism, not at baptism, as the word of God is taught and applied to individual lives. And it involves warning, not just general teaching. Finally, it happens only if God’s power and energy is applied to the process. The process of spiritual maturity is not man-made, but God-infused.
Another sign of spiritual maturity, according to God’s Word, is a forward look – a futuristic orientation. In Philippians chapter 3, Paul writes some of his most well-known lines as he tries to encourage these brothers and sisters:
Not that I have already obtained this or am already perfect, but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. Brothers, I do not consider that I have made it my own. But one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus. Let those of us who are mature think this way, and if in anything you think otherwise, God will reveal that also to you. Only let us hold true to what we have attained. – Philippians 3:12-16
I have highlighted the words in this passage that come from our focus word. Notice in the first verse it is translated one way (“perfect”), and in the other another way (“mature”). Both come from the same Greek root.
This is Paul’s great statement about pushing ahead, not being dragged down by what is in the past, in fact exerting great effort to move forward into the call of God in Christ. Here is what may at first seem a paradoxical statement: a sign of maturity is realizing you are not yet fully mature. If one thinks they are fully mature, they have stalled spiritually, they have nothing more to learn, no more to achieve.
In fact, it is impossible to reach full maturity this side of heaven. Only in Christ in the presence of God will we be made perfect for all time. So as long as we have breath, as long as we are bound by time and this earth, we are to be in a growth mode – striving, straining ahead, pushing forward toward God’s call, learning, achieving, trying and yes even sometimes failing, getting up and dusting ourselves off and setting forth on the path behind Jesus once again. This is the best of spiritual maturity in this world, and it is enough.
Let those of us who are mature think this way.
And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love.
- Paul in Ephesians 4:11-16 (with emphasis added)
Ephesians 4:13 is the next passage in the NT that utilizes the word “mature,” or once again, in the original language, TELEIOS. In this important passage, the apostle talks about some of the major gifts the Lord has given the church, and their intended effects on the church. Jesus gave the church such roles as apostles, evangelists, and teachers, among others. These positions were gifts to the church intended to help the church toward maturity and unity and strength.
“Mature manhood” is part of the goal. It is paralleled with, positively, the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ. Maturity, in the context of the church, is being like Jesus, in all His strength and completeness. Negatively, mature manhood is contrasted with no longer being children, which is further described as being unduly influenced by every strange and new doctrine that comes along.
As Paul continues, he says that such maturity involves speaking truth in a lovely way, and growing up into Jesus. The end result of all this, again in the context of the church, is that the church (body) grows as it is united, and that it constantly builds itself up in love.
Spiritual maturity includes being a part of Christ’s church, being like the Lord, speaking truth and not being swayed by falsehood, loving the brethren, and as a result of it all, growing. Take the opposite of all those traits, and one will see those things that demonstrate immaturity: not being a part of the church, being unlike Jesus, speaking and being influenced by false doctrine, not loving the brethren, and spiritual illness leading to death.
The next occurrence of the word “mature” in the canonical order of the New Testament is also in 1 Corinthians, chapter 14, verse 20. Throughout chapters 12-14 of 1 Corinthians Paul has been dealing with spiritual gifts in the church and their use and expression in the worship and assemblies of the church. This seemed to be a real source of concern to Paul and a clear source of stress and conflict in the Corinthian church. Their assemblies, frankly, appear to have been a mess. They were chaotic, competitive, and even discriminatory. Just read through these 3 chapters and you will see what is meant. Appropriately, Paul sums up his teaching on this in the last verse of 1 Corinthians 14 (verse 40) – “But all things should be done decently and in order.”
Well, matters like this certainly call for a great degree of spiritual maturity. Assembly issues, worship setting issues, conflict – all these cry out for spiritual maturity to correct. All of them arise in an atmosphere of spiritual immaturity – an atmosphere of selfishness, one-up-man-ship, “I’m better than you,” “I want it my way.”
One might go back to an earlier part of this same letter, 1 Corinthians 3:1-3, and note that Paul is concerned that these people are anything but mature, and the proof of it is that there is jealously and strife among them.
So, 1 Corinthians 14:20 makes sense, does it not? “Brothers, do not be children in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.” Don’t be immature in your thinking, but mature in your thinking. If you are going to be immature in anything, be immature in evil.
Once again this contrasts the way of the world with the way of Jesus Christ. The world talks about books, movies, etc. having “mature content.” What it really means is it is full of evil. I wonder how often Christians are more mature in evil than they are in Christ? The apostle says we should be infants in evil.
But, in the way we think, in our understanding, we need to be mature. What do we learn from this passage about spiritual maturity? Many things, perhaps, but one for today is the idea that in the church, in our assemblies, in our worship, mature minds must prevail. If our behavior leads to strife and division and confusion, we are not in the Biblical sense of the term being mature. “For God is not a God of confusion but of peace” – 1 Corinthians 14:33.
With 1 Corinthians 2:6, we come to the more common word used for “mature/maturity” in the New Testament – the word TELEIOS. The range of meaning for TELEIOS runs from “complete, perfect, whole, full-grown, mature.” When Jesus from the cross said “It is finished” (John 19:30), he was saying he had completed what he had come to do.
Here in 1 Corinthians chapter 2, Paul says “Yet among the mature we do impart wisdom, although it is not a wisdom of this age or of the rulers of this age, who are doomed to pass away.” It seems in the context Paul is referring to Christians when he says “mature” – and the idea is that Christians are mature/complete/whole in a spiritual sense. This is in opposition to those in the world, considered wise by the standards of the world. These, by implication, are immature, spiritually speaking. In fact, the biggest minds of the age, according to verse 8, understand nothing of spiritual importance, especially the wisdom of God. The proof of this is the fact that they crucified the Lord of glory. No mature/complete spiritual person would ever have done that.
Paul tells us that mature people are able to receive the wisdom of God. This is a sign of spiritual maturity. The world may reject them, call them dumb, laugh at and ridicule them – but God has wisdom for them that the world cannot fathom and certainly cannot receive. It is, in fact, a secret and hidden wisdom from the world. And, as one reads on in chapter 2, we discover that this wisdom is revealed to mature people through work of the Holy Spirit.
What do we learn about maturity from this text? Primarily this: Biblical spiritual maturity is something the world knows nothing of – they cannot understand it, and in fact they cannot receive it. If our world hails it or exalts it, it most likely is not from God and not in any meaningful way mature.
As believers, we ought to keep this in mind as we sort through the mass of ideas and philosophies thrust at us every day that complete for our loyalty to the Lord of glory. We have something the world cannot have. Why seek anything else?