Marks of a Mature Believer (Part 1)

by Nathan Schneider on September 23, 2020

It occurred to me recently how complicated life has become. On the one hand, that statement needs some qualification because, like Solomon says, there's nothing new under the sun. Life has always been complicated. On the other hand, I think we have to at least acknowledge that our children face decision points we didn't have growing up. There are new and insidious vectors for sin and temptation we don't think much about, having grown up without cell phones, iPads, and Facebook. I wrote about that shift a few weeks ago. It's just something we have to recognize about the world we live in. Temptations and difficult decisions lie waiting all around us regardless of when we grew up. But they are dressed differently these days than they were when I was a kid.

Thinking about all that made me realize how important it was for me to instill wisdom into my children. I want my boys to be wise. I want them to live lives of spiritual skill. I want them to be able to discern truth from error, see spiritual danger when it faces them, and recognize how their decisions will effect them and bring consequences in their lives, either good or bad.

In other words, I want my boys to grow up and be mature. I want them to develop not just physically but spiritually also. I want them to be boys, to enjoy childhood, to play and have fun and make friends. But I also want to see them develop. I want to see them develop skill in who their friends are, what they play, and what brings joy to their lives. Lately, we've started reading Proverbs together at night, for the pure simplicity of talking about wisdom together, a dad to his sons, just like Solomon did for his son.

Now, it's tempting to read that as an adult and think, "Aww, that's nice. I'm glad a dad wants his boys to grow up and be mature." But sadly far too many adults think growing up and maturing ends at adulthood. Yes, it's true that you should "train up a child in the way he should go" so that "even when he is old he will not depart from it" (Prov 22:6). But as a Christian, there is no endpoint to growth. Not when Christ is the standard of comparison (Rom 8:29; 2 Cor 3:18). There should always be a sense of dissatisfaction we feel about where we are spiritually, a sense that we haven't "arrived," that there's more to go.

At the same time, spiritual maturity is one of those concepts that often is left undefined. We talk about it, but we never describe it. So we fill the definitional vacuum with our own concepts of maturity. One person might define it by amount of time you spend reading your Bible or praying. Another person might define it by your choice of entertainment.

The apostle Paul defined maturity differently. He didn't look at maturity as a kind of checklist. Life is too complicated for that. Instead, he looked at maturity much more broadly, and we see how he thought of it as he prayed for the believers in Colossians 1:9-12.

And so, from the day we heard, we have not ceased to pray for you, asking that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding, 10 so as to walk in a manner worthy of the Lord, fully pleasing to him: bearing fruit in every good work and increasing in the knowledge of God; 11 being strengthened with all power, according to his glorious might, for all endurance and patience with joy; 12 giving thanks to the Father, who has qualified you to share in the inheritance of the saints in light. (Colossians 1:9-12)

Colossians 1:9-12 is a prayer. We get a short glimpse into the prayer journal of the apostle Paul, and at the heart of this prayer is his desire for the Colossians to grow into mature Christians.

But as inspired Scripture, it is more than a prayer for them. It is a prayer for us. It represents God's desire for us—for all his people—to mature in their faith. We see in this passage the marks of maturity in the Christian life that will help us assess not only where we are, but also where we should be.

So what are the marks of a mature Christian? Over the next couple of weeks we'll explore those marks, beginning with the first two today.

A mature Christian knows biblical truth

Spiritual maturity begins in the mind. That may be surprising to some. We've been trained by popular culture to associate religion with a certain behavior. But in reality, whether we understand it or not, what happens externally in the everyday aspects of life begins with thought processes in the mind.

A mature Christian understands this. He understands that the mind is the seat of our convictions. It's where we form our worldview, and assess thoughts before they become actions. And so Paul begins his prayer for the Colossians by focusing on how they think: "We have not ceased to pray for you and to ask that you may be filled with the knowledge of his will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding" (1:9).

Paul's concern is for believers to know biblical truth; to have a grasp of biblical theology. We see that in Paul's incessant prayer for the believers to be filled with the knowledge of God's will.

Let there be no mistaking what he's praying for. He's not asking for the believers in Colossae to know just enough to get by—as if they're students cramming for a midterm and hoping they can pack just enough information into their brains to pass with a decent grade.

No, the language here is quite intense. He asks that they be filled—a word that carries the idea of filling something to fullness. It's the same word the NT writers use to talk about something being fulfilled or completed. It's the word Paul uses to describe the absolute divinity of Christ a few verses later­—"in Christ, all the fullness of deity dwells in bodily form." It means to fill something up until it's full.

Paul is praying for a fullness that's not full until it's filled to the brim. And what he's asking is that they be filled with knowledge. But even this word isn't normal. Even this carries a sense of intensity.

The usual term for "knowledge" is gnosis, and it's where we get the term agnostic—"no knowledge." But Paul goes a leap further. He doesn't just want them filled with gnosis—"knowledge." He wants them filled with epignosis—"thorough knowledge," "complete knowledge." It's a knowledge that is larger and fuller, that completely grasps and penetrates to the heart of the object it knows.

And what's that object? God's will. Paul wants his readers to be completely filled to the brim with a complete, thorough, intimate, penetrating knowledge of the will of God.

Now, looming in the background of all this are the circumstances surrounding why Paul was writing in the first place. At the time he wrote Colossians, the apostle Paul was in Rome under house arrest. Timothy was with him (1:1). He had never met the Colossian believers. In fact, he had never even been to Colossae, a once-thriving economic center in Asia Minor that had since declined into a quiet and forgotten community in the Lycus Valley, overshadowed by its neighboring towns of Laodicea and Hyerapolis, and most of all, by Ephesus.

In fact, Paul would come to find out that Ephesus was actually where all of this began. During his missionary efforts in that city, he had apparently converted a man named Epaphras, who returned to his home town of Colossae filled with missionary vigor, where he preached the gospel and planted churches not only there, but in Laodicea and Hyerapolis as well.

The Christians in Colossae were obedient to the gospel. They had been godless pagans living godless, pagan lives, but when Epaphras shared the gospel with them, they repented and turned to Christ. Paul, in fact, talks about how much fruit was growing out of Epaphras' gospel ministry there, and how the believers were growing in their faith.

But then something else happened. You see, Paul would not have known any of this if it wasn't for the fact that Epaphras traveled some 1,000 miles to visit Paul in Roman prison. You see, things were happening in the Colossian church—ideas were circulating and new teachings were being introduced by key individuals—that so alarmed Epaphras that he was willing to make the arduous journey to Rome to elicit Paul's help.

Apparently a very specific kind of false teaching had surfaced in the area—a kind of Jewish mysticism that most closely resembles the kind of teachings that came out of the Qumran community in the Dead Sea area. These teachers came espousing a doctrine that they held up under the authority of "tradition" yet it grossly deviated from the gospel.

It was a religion for the elite, and it preyed on those who desired more for their spiritual lives but didn't know how to get it. These teachers claimed that spiritual maturity—what they called "fullness"—was only attainable through the acquiring of a special wisdom and knowledge that could only be initiated through the observance of strict dietary laws and Jewish ceremonial observances. Through self-abasement and extreme asceticism, they believed they could placate the spiritual forces that guarded heaven, allowing them to participate in mystical experiences. The "mature" believer—who had "fullness" in wisdom and knowledge—could enter into heaven and join in the angelic worship of God.

That is the backdrop for the letter, and it begins to bring into perspective exactly why Paul is praying the way he is. In contrast to this special, elite "knowledge" which was the exclusive property of these false teachers and offered the hope of reaching "fullness"—maturity—Paul prays that God would fill the Colossian believers completely with a thorough, complete, and penetrating knowledge of God's will.

He wants them to know what the will of God is, a knowledge that—unlike the false teachers in Colossae—is not a mystery. In fact, in Ephesians 1:9, Paul makes the startling assertion that God has actually revealed to us the "mystery of his will". And even in our own letter here, Paul says,

"I was made a minister of the church according to the stewardship from God bestowed on me for your benefit, so that I might fully carry out the preaching of the word of God, that is, the mystery which has been hidden from the past ages and generations, but has not been manifested to His saints." (Colossians 1:25-26)

The will of God he's talking about here is more than simply what God wants from us. It is that, but it's more than that. The will of God is the revealed will of God's plan for the ages—the redemptive plan of God that he has revealed to us in Scripture and particularly through the coming of Jesus Christ.

What Paul wants his readers to have is a thorough, complete knowledge of doctrine—of theology. He wants them to thoroughly comprehend what God has done and is doing and will do in the future to redeem a people for his name through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

He wants them to know about the doctrine of God, man, sin, redemption, the church, Christ, the Holy Spirit, and last things. He wants them to understand the totality of the gospel.

That's the first mark of a mature Christian...a growing understanding and comprehension of the totality of the gospel. A mature Christian recognizes what they know and acknowledges what they don't know. But they don't settle into that position for life. They keep growing. They keep pursuing truth. They hunger and thirst to understand the totality of what Christ has done for us in the gospel. A mature Christian knows and continues to grow in their understanding and knowledge of biblical truth.

But in order to be called "mature," that same Christian has to also be doing something else...they have to understand how to take that truth and see how it impacts their lives.

A mature Christian  applies biblical truth

That's the second mark of how a mature Christian thinks. He knows biblical truth, and he also is skilled at applying it. We get this from the end of verse 9: "That you may be filled with the knowledge of His will in all spiritual wisdom and understanding." (1:9)

Mature Christian thinking means being able to take the doctrine they know and critically apply it to the various aspects of everyday life. That's the idea behind this verse. This means that the knowledge Paul wants us to have is a knowledge that is processed in the mind in ways that are deliberate and discerning.

Wisdom and understanding are two terms that often appear together. They harken all the way back to Proverbs: "The fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom, and the knowledge of the Holy One is understanding" (Proverbs 9:10). In fact, they're often synonymous with each other.

Here, if anything, wisdom carries a very broad idea. It speaks of an ability to collect and concisely organize principles, in this case, principles of God's will. Understanding, on the other hand, it a more focused word that refers to the idea of skill in applying those principles to everyday life.

It's this kind of skill that marks the immature Christian from the one who's mature. An immature Christian may know a lot of Scripture. They may have a thorough knowledge of all things theological. They may be able to dance around their own pastor theologically. But when the heat is turned up—when it really counts—they don't know how any of it makes a difference in their lives. They have all this knowledge, but they don't have the skill to apply it.

A mature Christian, on the other hand, loves theology. They love to learn more from God's word. They never have enough. But it's not an end in itself. They have the wisdom to organize its principles in their mind and the skill to apply it in life.

These things, by the way, aren't something we just acquire by our own ingenuity. You can't simply develop wisdom and understanding on your own. That's why Paul calls them spiritual wisdom and understanding—wisdom and understanding given by the Spirit. We don't have time to get into it, but 1 Corinthians 2:6-16 outlines this case in detail. The wisdom of man versus the wisdom of God, and the fact that only the one who has God's Spirit can understand and possess God's wisdom because it's something that comes from the Spirit.

That means that spiritual maturity—which starts in the mind, remember—is not ultimately a work of man but a work of God. And that's why Paul prays what he does—he prays to the only one who can give the Colossians what they really need.

Next week, we'll cover the next two marks of a mature believer...

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