by Dr. John Yates
v11 About this we have much to say, and it is hard to explain, since you have become dull of hearing. v12 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, v13 for everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. v14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil. Hebrew 5:11-14
Every church aims to be “mature”, but it would be hard to name a church in Perth, large or small, that could honestly claim maturity in love, unity, mission or holiness. The problems that assail the wider Australian community- marriage tension, divorce, family strife, immorality, anxiety, depression, unforgiveness, materialism, and so on, are equally common amongst the people of God.
The tension between what the Bible says we can be in Christ and our actual spiritual development has generated a huge industry of books, recordings, music, conferences and programmes that seem powerless to mature the church. In dealing with the foundational problems underlying immaturity we must start with the Fall of Adam and end with the resurrection of Jesus.
The Challenge in the Garden
When created Adam and Eve had not yet reached perfection. They were innocent and sinless but not yet mature. To reach the spiritual maturity of full God-likeness they needed to confront evil. This was why it was necessary and fitting for the first couple to be tempted.
Adam was given one specific command that required complete obedience, “of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.””(Gen 2:17). When Eve was approached by Satan, Adam (Gen 3:6) should have confronted the devil with a righteous anger that revealed jealousy for God and for his bride. If he had “hate(d) what is evil and clung fast to what is good” (Rom 12:9) he would have been holy as God is holy and entered into the mature destiny of sharing the divine glory. The opposite happened, “all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom 3:23).
The story of the Fall is familiar, but we often miss why God left Adam and Eve alone in the garden with only his Word to confront the devil. God’s Word is the complete irreproachable truth as ultimate and indestructible as his nature. To deny God’s Word is to deny God.
Alone in the Garden however, things were not so clear. When Satan began to speak, God didn’t “turn up” to rebuke the devil, give a sign or impart some special feeling to Adam and Eve. It must have seemed to them that God didn’t care, that they had been forgotten by their Father (Luke 3:38) and that the devil was right in rejecting the Word of God. In the end it came down to God’s Word against Satan’s Word, God was acting like an absent Father but Satan was up close and personal. We would all have done exactly what they the first couple did and we have all suffered their fate.
The LORD declares “ ‘those who honour me I will honour, and those who despise me shall be lightly esteemed.” (1 Sam 2:30). Immediately Adam and Eve let go of the divine Word planted in their hearts (Rom 10:9-10) and ate of the tree they were filled with shame. In themselves they deeply sensed the loss of the glory of God (Rom 3:23).
The Hebrew word for “glory” means “weight” or “intensity”; when sin through shame strips humanity of God’s glorious presence people feel lightweight, insignificant, small and purposeless. Today’s plague of depression, anxiety, drug taking and sexual addiction reflects the loss of the glory of God in man. Even more tragically, the Christian entertainment industry and the mediocrity of popular preaching that has degenerated into motivational speaking shows that this tragic state is as alive in the church as in the world.
The Failure to Mature
Like Adam and Eve, Israel failed to mature and inherit the promises of God. God spoke to his people personally at Mount Sinai, “if you will indeed obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession among all peoples, for all the earth is mine” (Ex 19:5). Yet when Moses went up the mountain to receive the Ten Commandments the nation felt forgotten by God and worshipped a golden calf. In the wilderness, they grumbled like spoiled brats and in the Promised Land they never stopped chasing idols.
Nevertheless, inside the Old Testament we find pointers on the way to maturity. In pain, the psalmists cry out, “Has God forgotten to be gracious? Has he in anger shut up his compassion?””(Ps 77:9). As the merciless Babylonians approach to devastate Jerusalem the prophet Habakkuk complains, “O Lord, how long shall I cry for help, and you will not hear? Or cry to you “Violence!” and you will not save?” (Hab 1:2). These figures groan in the depths of their being, “Where is God when it matters most?
Speaking in the midst of exile Isaiah opens with a declaration from God that seems shocking, “v7 I form light and create darkness, I make well-being and create calamity, I am the Lord, who does all these things.” (Isa 45:7). The prophet then proceeds with a revelation that seems intolerable, “Truly, you are a God who hides himself, O God of Israel, the Savior.” (Isa 45:15). The truth that God deliberately hides himself is both offensive to human ears and the key to all spiritual maturity.
Maturity in Jesus
The writer to the Hebrews has a lot to say about Christian maturity, but it is all grounded in the life of Christ. He describes Jesus agony in Gethsemane like this:
“v7 In the days of his flesh, Jesus offered up prayers and supplications, with loud cries and tears, to him who was able to save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverence. v8 Although he was a son, he learned obedience through what he suffered. v9 And being made perfect, he became the source of eternal salvation to all who obey him, v10 being designated by God a high priest after the order of Melchizedek.” (Heb 5:7-10) Jesus never sinned, but he was only able to reach the depths of perfect submission to his Father through the extreme suffering on the cross.
The Bible has many images to help us understand the distress of the cross, one is the use of drowning imagery of the psalms, “v6 You have put me in the depths of the pit, in the regions dark and deep. v7 Your wrath lies heavy upon me, and you overwhelm me with all your waves.” (Ps 88:6-7,)
“v1 Save me, O God! For the waters have come up to my neck…. v2 I sink in deep mire, where there is no foothold; I have come into deep waters, and the flood sweeps over me. v17 Hide not your face from your servant; for I am in distress; make haste to answer me…” (Ps 69:1-2, 17). The psalmists understand God has plunged them into waters that overwhelm them and only God can rescue them.
Drowning is a pretty scary experience: JY been a Christian for only a few months, swept out by a rip, waves were breaking over me, been under twice and believed the next time under was the last, I found myself crying out again and again to God from my heart the words from the cross, “Father into your hands I commit my spirit.”. If you have ever had a drowning experience, or been diagnosed with a terminal illness, or abandoned by a life partner, or involved in a horrific accident or lost a child… or experienced some other tragedy, you know that there are no human remedies. However confused your mind becomes there is only one place you can go, you can only cry out to God! Nothing else, no-one else, not your religion, not your faith, only the God who is sovereign over your circumstances can help; you can appeal to God for grace. But our struggles, however painful, are radically different from the anguish of the cross.
The “loud cries and tears” of Jesus’ prayers in Gethsemane concerned the “cup” which his Father asked him to drink (Mark 14:36); this is “the cup” of the divine wrath. The cup means darkness, disaster and abandonment by God to the realm of evil. This is why Jesus “cried with a loud voice … “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”” (Mark 15:34). As the world was covered with darkness (Mark 15:33; Gen 1:2) it seems to Jesus’ that God’s anger is directed against him and that all is lost. Jesus feels so stripped of the glory of Sonship that in the words of Psalm 22 (from which he has already quoted) that he is “a worm and not a man” (Ps 22:6). The substitutionary suffering of the cross brings Jesus into the midst of the shameful smallness and frailty of human life apart from God.
Yet Christ’s cry, “My God, my God”, does not curse the darkness, does not recriminate his murderers, does not seek deliverance by human hands or the relief of his physical agonies, it is a cry only for God. His only recourse lies in the will of God in heaven, even if in this state of suffering there is no evidence that God is his Father.
This cry, so basic and childlike in its simplicity, shows that Jesus’ dependence upon God has reached perfection. This is what the writer to Hebrews means when he says, “looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb 12:2). Jesus’ own faith was perfected because he kept calling out to God as his God, calling out to God for his Word even when all evidence of the presence of God had been removed and he was left naked and utterly alone.
No-one at the foot of the cross, neither his followers nor his enemies, saw that the wrath of God being poured out on the Son of God was not against him but against our sin. The truth that could only be given by divine revelation (even to Jesus) was that everything that looked and felt like God’s anger was more deeply the working of eternal grace.
Mercifully however, Jesus did not need to bear the withdrawal of God’s presence for the entire period of his crucifixion. John records, “v28 Jesus, knowing that all was now finished, …. v30 said, “It is finished,” and he bowed his head and gave up his spirit.” (John 19:28, 30). This expression “it is finished” means, “It is completed, all is accomplished.” Luke’s climax to the cross is even more forceful, even in the midst of physical torture Jesus’ spirit breaks through into the divine presence and he utters a cry of victory, “ “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”” (Luke 23:46)
Piercing the death pangs of Jesus was a sense of the Father’s satisfaction, he knew that he had done all that the Father asked him to do, he knew that however cruel the experiences of life, God is blameless. In his spirit the dying Christ was so penetrated with the presence of God that he knew he would soon to pass into the divine glory and to be raised immortal (2 Tim 1:10).
Maturity in Christ
In saying, “Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom, that we may present everyone mature in Christ.” (Col 1:28), Paul teaches that maturity can only come to us in the way it came to Jesus. The Holy Spirit imparts the mature sonship of Christ in leading us on the same road of submission to the will of the Father that took Jesus to the cross.
In 2 Corinthians 1 the apostle shares his own experience of this road, “v8 For we do not want you to be ignorant, brothers, of the affliction we experienced in Asia. For we were so utterly burdened beyond our strength that we despaired of life itself. v9 Indeed, we felt that we had received the sentence of death. But that was to make us rely not on ourselves but on God who raises the dead.v10 He delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us. On him we have set our hope that he will deliver us again.” (2 Cor 1:8-10)
We only mature as we are confronted with the evils of rejection, slander, misunderstanding or physical pain and God does not seem to be present. Our circumstances must be so pressing that it becomes God’s naked Word against Satan’s word, the world’s word and even the voice of our own conscience. When faith seems alone and God does not seem to speak all we can do is cry out with Job, “Though he slay me yet will I hope in him” (Job 13:15).
In the midst of this dark night of the soul we cry out to God for deliverance in the same Spirit of sonship (Gal 4:6) by which Jesus cried out to his Father in the Garden and upon the cross. This is the Spirit who always delivers us; in God’s way and at God’s time. It is through conformity to the fellowship of Christ’s sufferings and the power of the resurrection (Phil 3:10) that we learn that when all feels like God has abandoned us the truth is that as his children we are always under grace. JY recently asked by a student what I understood by humility, “Humility is the way of maturity and it involves agreeing with God when he is crushing sin out of us.” It is only in this way that the flesh is crucified, Christ formed in us and the deceptive effects of the Fall are undone.
Experience teaches us that to go deep with God he must take us into those places where all our usual mechanisms of avoidance, denial and self medication fail. As Hebrews says, “v13 everyone who lives on milk is unskilled in the word of righteousness, since he is a child. v14 But solid food is for the mature, for those who have their powers of discernment trained by constant practice to distinguish good from evil.” (Heb 5:13-14).
Maturity is the ability to discern the difference between good and evil, and this ability is formed only in the furnace of affliction where we come to know the God is blameless no matter how bad things appear. Maturity in Christ involves accepting that this cycle of darkness and light, despair and jubilation, affliction and deliverance, obscurity and clarity, confusion and revelation, crucifixion and resurrection will never come to an end in this life. It also means knowing that this all worthwhile, because as you keep on praying, seeking and knocking you find a goodness in God’s heart that is indescribably wonderful.
The Passion of True Ministry
Paul speaks of his passion “to present everyone mature in Christ” (Col 1:28 cf. 4:12). “v12 To equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, v13 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.” (Eph 4:12-13) is the purpose of all true Christian ministry.
All the gifts, graces and ministries of the church are designed to bring men and women to their true completion in Christ. Authentic ministry has no space for entertainment, indulgence, co-dependency, self service or personal advancement. The hard truth confronts us, all those who are being matured in Christ will necessarily disciple and mature others, and the fruit of their lives will remain (John 15:16).
Struggling to mature
The church so often resists the maturing work of the cross because the triumph of the cross is essentially the triumph of faith alone by grace alone through Christ alone. And sometimes it can all feel very alone. The author of Hebrews comes to our aid once more when he says of Jesus, “For it was fitting that he, for whom and by whom all things exist, in bringing many sons to glory, should make the founder of their salvation perfect through suffering.” (Heb 2:10).
We reach a stage in life experience when we realise that suffering is the only “fitting” way of making us mature sons of God for the only way “flesh and blood” (Heb 2:14) can be redeemed and transformed is for God to come to us in the way of weakness and frailty.
With God, life goes in cycles. Recently I went through a stage when someone took offence at me warning him against an evil influence in his life, a Christian leader mistakenly believed I was personally attacking him in a public way meeting and another rebuked me for overstepping the boundaries of my spiritual authority. In the depths of rejection, when the waves are breaking over your head, you keep on confessing the absolute faithfulness of God and sooner or later you get an insight that radically changes everything.
Coming out of this tunnel of darkness I felt the Lord speak to me very deeply and say, “I chose you because you are so weak.” (cf. 1 Cor 1:26 ff), by which he meant so weak psychologically, so frail emotionally. As Paul heard from Jesus, ““v9 … My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” … v10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (2 Cor 12:8-10). Such dealings do not leave us feeling small, but reveal to us that we are sharing in the glory and significance of the Son of God.
Christians are so often predictable and superficial. We love sayings such as, “God hates the sin but loves the sinner.”, but who amongst us is truly impacted by the depths of the divine hatred of evil and the extent of God’s love for the lost?
Jesus exhorts his church, “Wake up, and strengthen what remains and is about to die, for I have not found your works complete in the sight of my God.” (Rev 3:2). The author of Hebrews is very straight with his readers, “v1 Therefore let us leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity…. v3 And this we will do if God permits.” (Heb 6:1-3)
“If God permits” is a very sobering word, because the state of affairs amongst the people of God indicates that God may not permit his unmotivated, lazy and compromised people to go on to maturity. He may very well pass them by and raise up from outside the established church (from the addicts, outcastes, impoverished, sexually broken), a group of disciples who will obey him.
There is only one certainty, only as we return to the “word of the cross” (1 Cor 1:18) can we experience a power adequate enough to keep us anchored to God in a world where he seems so often absent. Only the message of the crucified Christ can keep us close to him in a world ever full of distractions; only the gospel is powerful enough to bring us to maturity.
v10 And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you. v11 To him be the dominion forever and ever. Amen. 1 Peter 5:10-11