Continuing in nearly the same context in the book of Hebrews, the writer in 6:1 uses the word “maturity” in the following way:
Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity, not laying again a foundation of repentance from dead works and of faith toward God, and of instruction about washings, the laying on of hands, the resurrection of the dead, and eternal judgment. And this we will do if God permits.
It is always helpful to recall when we read and study the Bible that the chapter and verse divisions are artificial and in no sense original and inspired. Hebrews 6:1 really goes with Hebrews 5:14 (in fact, the true paragraph would be something like 5:11-6:8). Recall that at the end of chapter 5 the writer is concerned that his readers should be digesting more meaty spiritual truths, and not be stuck in the elementary doctrines of Christ. They should have those down by now and actually be mature enough to be teaching them to others.
So the thought continues as chapter 6 opens that these Christians ought to move beyond the basic doctrines and on toward spiritual maturity. He gives some examples of the kinds of things they were still stuck in and should have by now figured out and moved on from: repentance, faith and works, baptisms, resurrection, judgment. Now certainly all these doctrines are important, and in a sense Christians never leave them behind – they are some of the building blocks of our beliefs. However, there are things beyond them that mature Christians must deal with and learn about and grow in. What might these things be? One would have to survey the entire New Testament to discover them! God’s Word is deep and wide – it addresses every area of life, it speaks of all things that pertain to life and godliness (2 Peter 1:3).
The basic point is that mature Christians have gone beyond just the basic doctrines of Christ which they dwelt on when they were converted to Christ – not forgetting them of course, not neglecting important first principles – but not spending a spiritual lifetime dwelling on them to the exclusion of more meaty subjects. If all one does is major in the basics, one will struggle in teaching others of Jesus. Mature believers are apt to teach.
The writer of Hebrews also takes up the issue of spiritual maturity in Hebrews 5:14 – “But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” The context here, as always, is key. Our writer seems to be writing in part out of frustration at the lack of spiritual growth some of those in his charge are demonstrating. Consider verses 11-13 –
About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic principles of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food, for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child.
The “about this” with which this text begins indicates the previous section where the writer was delving into some of the deeper truths of the Christian faith, things like the sacrifice of Jesus, His high priesthood after the order of Melchizedek, etc. The Hebrew writer wishes he could spend his time delving more into these rich, meaty spiritual truths, but some unfortunately continue to need the ABCs of the faith explained to them. Solid spiritual food is for mature spiritual people. Spiritual milk is for newborn babes in Christ, as well as older Christians who ought to be farther along in faith than they are.
But also notice in verse 14, that the Scripture further describes those who are mature as those whose powers of discernment have been trained by constant practice to be able tell good from evil. It might seem too simple, but it is not. A spiritually mature person is able to tell good from bad. They have developed this trait by constant practice. That is, they think it is actually important whether something is good or evil, they believe things actually are either good or evil, and they behave and make choices accordingly.
Mature Christians stand out in a world that exalts relativism. They have been taught that there are things that are good, and there are things that are evil. They have been trained to discern between the two, and they practice such discernment all the time.
People like this are able to receive the deeper things of the Spirit (1 Corinthians 2:10).
The next usage of our word is also found in Paul’s letter to the Colossians, but in the section of greetings at the close of the letter, a place we might not often focus our study attentions. The particular greeting Paul sends them is from one Epaphras, in Colossians 4:12-13. This is not the first time this man has been mentioned in the letter. In 1:7, Paul indicates that Epaphras was special to the Colossians because he was the one who initially brought them the good news of Jesus and thus planted the church in Colossae (“Just as you learned it [that is, the ‘grace of God’ – 1:6] from Epaphras our beloved fellow servant.”) Epaphras was a close co-worker of the apostle’s – in fact, he spent time in prison with Paul – Philemon 23.
The insight we gain into spiritual maturity from this reference in Colossians 4:12 is that the path to maturity involves great effort and struggling in prayer. Notice the text:
Epaphras, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in all the will of God. For I bear him witness that he has worked hard for you and for those in Laodicea and in Hierapolis.
Epaphras, a fellow Colossian, who had been the lead missionary to the city and planted the church there, prayed for these believers that they would come to maturity in Christ Jesus. This effort of prayer was strenuous. The word used is one from which we derive “agonize.” Effective prayers for maturity are not lightweight or half-hearted. They are fervent, hard-working prayers.
Part of coming to maturity is having those who taught us or are teaching us, praying for us on a regular basis that we will indeed grow in Christ. This is an element that cannot be left out.
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.