“At that time the disciples came to Jesus and said, ‘Who then is greatest in the kingdom of heaven?’
“And He called a child to Himself and set him before them, and said, ‘Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.
“Whoever then humbles himself as this child, he is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.’” (Mat 18:1-4)
Have you ever thought about your spiritual maturity factor? Follow this study and perhaps you’ll see some indicators that can help gauge where you are in your walk with the Lord.
There are several places in the new covenant writings that speak to issues of maturing in a believer’s life. Paul said of the Corinthian Church,
“And I, brethren, could not speak to you as to spiritual men, but as to men of flesh, as to infants in Christ.” (1Co3:1)
It appears that many of the Corinthian believers were very immature in their walk with the Lord. Paul compares them to those who live a fleshly life.
The word for infant here is ‘nepios‘ [nay’-pee-os]. Nepios is an infant child not able to speak well. Metaphorically it has to do with one who is unlearned and unenlightened.
Paul later again draws on this term with the Corinthians:
“When I was a child (nepios), I use to speak like a child, think like a child, reason like a child; when I became a man (aner), I did away with childish (nepios) things.” (1Co13:11 – ‘Aner‘ is an adult male at the age of marriage.)
The Four Levels of John
There are a number of Greek terms that express levels of maturity in Christ. Whereas John does not draw on all the terms, he does provide a basic outline on Christian maturity.
Let’s gain some insight from John’s writings…
“I am writing to you, little children [teknoin], because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake.
“I am writing to you, fathers [pater], because you know Him who has been from the beginning.
“I am writing to you, young men [neaniskos], because you have overcome the evil one.
“I have written to you, children [paidion], because you know the Father.
“I have written to you, fathers [pater], because you know Him who has been from the beginning.
“I have written to you, young men [neaniskos], because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (1Jn 2:12-14)
Nature’s Character Traits for Each Level
John does not list these levels of maturity in the order they are normally found. However, he does give character traits of each level.
Here are the Greek words that imply the natural progression in spiritual maturity.
(1) “Little children.” – The term is ‘teknoin.’ In the New Testament teknoin is always used affectionately. It is a nursery term for very small children. Teknoin is usually with regard to newer converts.
(2) “Children.” – The term is ‘paidion.’ This term often depicts a boy or girl at pre-adolescence, or partly grown, but not yet at a manly or womanly stage. The ‘paidion’ is under the management and learning stage where discipline and correction are very important. Jesus used it as a tender term for His disciples:
“So Jesus said to them, ‘Children [paidion], you do not have any fish, do you?’ They answered Him, ‘No.’ And He said to them, ‘Cast the net on the right-hand side of the boat and you will find a catch.’ So they cast, and then they were not able to haul it in because of the great number of fish.” (Joh 21:5-6)
At no stage in the believer’s maturity are we to discard the attitude of a ‘paidion’. It is the proper attitude every believer must have in order to enjoy a healthy walk of faith. This is the term that Jesus uses in the beginning our study, where He said,
“Truly I say to you, unless you are converted and become like children [paidion], you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” [To enter in this sense relates to entering into and living in the dynamics of the kingdom of heaven.]
(3) “Young men.” – The term is “neaniskos.” This is a young man beyond the age of puberty, generally up to the age of 40, and often unmarried. This is the age where the person has learned to respect the Father’s discipline and has become manly (womanly) in their walk with the Lord.
(4) “Fathers.” – The term is ‘pater.’ This is a term for a male parent. Pater has to do with respect and often is used with regard to a teacher or one in authority. It the LXX it is used of prophets. The term associates itself with wisdom.
Have you found yourself yet?
Let’s continue. It is at this point where we see how John relates these natural traits for the age of our spiritual maturity. Understand this and you will have insight into spiritual grown patterns.
(Caps are for emphasis only.)
1st The LITTLE CHILDREN stage is the beginning of our journey. Little children need unconditional acceptance and affection. Their world revolves around parentage. What did John say about the little children?
“I am writing to you, little children, because your sins have been forgiven you for His name’s sake.” (Vs1 and vs12.)
For a new believer there is no greater need. This is the age where the pastor and those who helped birth him or her into the kingdom must be very cautious to seeing to their care. (They are easily offended. They live strongly by their emotions. Their security is the parent. They often identify their salvation with the Church they attend.)
2nd The CHILDREN stage is the next natural progression where the believer begins to learn the authority of the father. Here love is coupled with discipline. It is at this stage that the believer learns that he can no longer get by with things he use to get by with.
The level of discipline that is required depends greatly on the child himself. What the child is now learning is that the world doesn’t revolve around him. Every little whimper doesn’t bring, “That’s alright honey.”
The child has to learn that there are consequences to bad behavior. This is often the age where believers experience the greatest difficulty in transition. (Feelings get hurt. Think they know more than they actually know, etc.)
What did John say about this age?
“I have written to you, children, because you know the Father.”
But what is the purpose behind this changing time in a believer’s life? Listen carefully:
“All discipline for the moment seems not to be joyful, but sorrowful; yet to those who have been trained by it, afterwards it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness.” (Heb 12:11)
The training produces the proper way of living the Christian life. It is where we are learning how to live as a mature disciple.
3rd The YOUNG MAN stage is where the believer lives as an overcomer. He has learned that the true walk of faith consist of taking a stand on the Word of Truth, and not on his emotions.
The character trait of this level is ‘overcoming!’ John said,
“I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the evil one.” (Vs14)
4th Finally we have the FATHERS. This is the ‘deepening‘ of God. The fathers don’t just know that their sins have been forgiven. They are deeply acquainted with ‘Him who has been from the beginning.” (Vs14)
This may sound like a peculiar statement, but it has to do with the person of Jesus Himself. Whenever John uses the term ‘from the beginning,’ he has the mystery of the Messiah and of God’s Eternal Word in view.
This mature factor has to do with knowing and understanding.
The fully mature believer perceives things as they are. This is the highest level of our spiritual life. This knowing is the crown of a believer’s life.
The importance of each spiritual level
First of all, all believers know the Lord on the spiritual level where they are. For this reason most of us tend to think we know God better than we really do. We just haven’t advanced in our ‘knowing’ experience yet. This is why we get so adamant in doctrinal debates. But knowing God is not a doctrine. It is an experience of the heart.
Can we get to know God better?
Yes indeed, we can get to know the heart of God better and better all the time. This is what spiritual growth is all about. And this is what Paul has in mind when he encourages the Corinthians to grow up in their spiritual life.
“Yet we do speak wisdom among those who are mature; a wisdom, however, not of this age nor of the rulers of this age, who are passing away; but we speak God’s wisdom in a mystery, the hidden wisdom which God predestined before the ages to our glory.” (1Co2:6,7)
Paul is speaking of the new covenant experience, where the Holy Spirit takes the things of Christ and then presents them to us. A little reading of the context will show this to be true.
However, it is important to remember that each stage of growth is perfect at its own stage. This does not mean that everyone will grow at the same pace. God’s discipline in our growing up always depends to a large degree on the child’s attitude. At the same time the Lord always disciplines us with love.
Take time to think on these things. I purposely avoided many of the technical aspects of the Greek terms used. Nor did I use some certain other terms that also speak of spiritual maturity. It is simply my want to help my readers have something to consider their own maturity level.
Here is a song for your meditation. ‘Lord, I Give You My Heart.’
In Christ always,