Some folks think Christian maturity comes in one dose. It can be easy for those of us who come from denominations with a certain kind of experiential emphasis to think that somehow we’ll have a dramatic experience that will put us on a higher plain. People look for the one spiritual experience that will, somehow, put them over the top.
On the one hand, there are worse things to wish for. I heard a preacher say once, “It’s easier to cool down a fanatic than warm up a corpse.” I certainly do not want to belittle enthusiasm.
Growth spurts are not the end goal.
On the other hand, I do not think that mountaintop experiences are to be the goal of the Christian life. I do think there are times when we go through spiritual growth spurts, but these are not the end of the road for us. We can each think of times both physically and spiritually when we have had dramatic moments of growth, insight, learning, and development, but we should also recognize that most of life is made up of the everyday routines and habits that shape the sort of person we become.
If you are still alive, if you are still drawing breath, then you are still a candidate for Christian growth. Christians must grow and develop over time just as children do.
You and I ought to pay attention to our Christian experience. We ought not to think that a relationship with Jesus Christ is something that just happens to us; we ought to recognize the need for the cultivation of moral and spiritual Christian maturity.
Maturity is hard won.
Such cultivation is not always easy to maintain. The Book of Hebrews has as its central exhortation the commandment to persevere, to hang in there, to remain faithful to the Lord your God in the face of adversity.
This book was written to Christians who were tempted to fall back to their former Jewish faith in order to escape persecution. It’s likely that they were in Rome because there was quite a contingent of Jewish Christians in the city of Rome who underwent significant persecution under the Roman Emperor Nero.
The author of Hebrews warned these believers not to reject their new found faith in Jesus Christ. He (or she, we don’t know who authored this letter) wrote that they must not forsake the assembling of themselves together. (Hebrews 10:25) The author also reminded them that the blood of bulls and goats was not sufficient to put away sin–their former Jewish faith and practices could not save them.
The theme of this book is that God has fulfilled His purposes through the Person of Jesus Christ. To paraphrase the author’s introduction,
God who in former times and in diverse ways has spoken to the Fathers by the prophets, has in these days of fulfillment spoken to us by a son whom he appointed heir of all things; through whom also he made the worlds. This son is the express image of God’s glory, the exact representation of His nature. Having made a sacrifice for sin He sat down at the right hand of God and He received a much better name than the angels. (Hebrews 1:1-4, paraphrase)
The Jewish Christians who first read the book of Hebrews need to be reminded that God has now faithfully revealed himself through Jesus Christ. Once you realize that truth, you simply cannot go back to your former life and beliefs.
Move forward in your faith – don’t give up.
The dominant imagery of this book is the imagery of a pilgrimage. In chapters 3 and 4, in particular, the author refers to the children of Israel as being in the wilderness, marching to the Promised Land. He returns to this imagery once again in chapters 11 and 12. The central exhortation of this book is something like, “Don’t fall by the wayside. Don’t give up. Don’t be as the children of Israel of old with whom God was not well pleased.”
The author of this text goes on to use various methods to try to get these Jewish Christians to move forward in their faith instead of regressing to their former Jewish identity. He begins by scolding his audience:
For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you have need again for someone to teach you the elementary principles of the oracles of God, and you have come to need milk and not solid food. (Hebrews 5:12)
The Jewish followers of Jesus to whom this text was addressed had grown so dull and sluggish that they needed someone to teach them the elementary rudiments of the word of God all over again. They had failed to grow and mature appropriately.
You grow in your faith all of your life.
Who among us can say that we have done all that we ought to have done? Who among us can say, “I have worked very hard at this business of being a faithful Christian and I have grown exactly as much I ought to have grown?” I do not know anyone who would be so bold as to make that kind of statement. It is appropriate for us to admit that at any point we ought to have paid more attention in the classroom of our Lord. We ought to have been better disciples. We ought to have been better followers.
The Christian life is just that — a life. It involves growth. The author here uses the metaphor of a child who needs to outgrow its mother’s milk and move on to more substantial food so he or she can continue to grow. The Christian life is similar in that it involves development and growth. Notice the author’s use of words like “attain” or “practice:”
But solid food is for the mature, who because of practice have their senses trained to discern good and evil. (Hebrews 5:14)
Exciting spiritual experiences can be good, but they’re not usually an effective replacement for enduring in the steady, day-by-day prayer, study, and practicing of virtue that will, over time, mold you into the person God created you to be.
The preceding was adapted by Rachel Motte from a sermon Dr. Sloan delivered at Tallowood Baptist Church on July 25, 1990.