Spiritual growth

Peter’s first letter was written to converted Israelites who were living in “the five Roman provinces in Asia Minor (modern-day Turkey)” (Introduction to the First Letter of Peter). Peter focused his attention on two key aspects of these Christians’ lives, submission and suffering. Peter began by stating that God the Father “has caused us to be born again to a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, to an inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you who by God’s power are being guarded through faith for a salvation ready to be revealed in the last time” (1 Peter 1:3-5). The phrase caused to be born again is “used metaphorically for a change of carnal nature to a Christian life; to regenerate…It is equivalent to being a child of God” (G313). Peter used the pronoun us to indicate that he was a member of God’s family too and as such, was speaking to himself as well as his audience when he said, “In this you rejoice, though now for a little while, if necessary you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious that gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ” (1 Peter 1:6-7). Peter connected the inheritance that is imperishable, undefiled, and unfading, kept in heaven for you with being grieved by various trials in order to show that there is a reason why Christians suffer. Peter indicated that “the salvation of your souls” is the outcome of trusting in God (1 Peter 1:9).

The Greek word that is translated outcome, telos (telˊ-os) means “to set out for a definite point or goal” and is properly translated as “the point aimed at as a limit, i.e. (by implication) the conclusion of an act or state” (G5056). The thought that telos conveys is that there is a purpose for things that happen and that the processes we go through as Christians have an end to them. Telos is often translated as the end in reference to Jesus’ ministry and his purpose for coming into the world. Peter talked about the end in the context of being stewards of God’s grace and suffering as a Christian. Peter said, “The end of all things is at hand; therefore be self-controlled and sober-minded for the sake of your prayers. Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins” (1 Peter 4:7-8) Peter went on to say, “Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery trial when it comes upon you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice insofar as you share Christ’s sufferings, that you may also rejoice and be glad when his glory is revealed” (1 Peter 4:12-13). Peter’s final statement, “Therefore let those who suffer according to God’s will entrust their souls to a faithful Creator while doing good” (1 Peter 4:19) suggests that doing good is a part of suffering and that it has an effect on our souls. In order to rejoice and be glad when Christ’s glory is revealed, it seems that Peter expected believers to go through a process of suffering that would change their souls and result in Christ’s resurrection being realized in their own lives.

The Apostle Paul talked about being transformed by the renewal of your mind and said that Christians are to be a living sacrifice. Romans 12:1-2 states:

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship. Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind, that by testing you may discern what is the will of God, what is good and acceptable and perfect.

The renewal that Paul was talking about was a qualitative change. “Therefore, a renewing or a renovation which makes a person different that in the past” (G342). The Greek word nous (nooce) defines the mind “as the seat of emotions and affections, mode of thinking and feeling, disposition, moral inclination, equivalent to the heart (Romans 1:28; 12:2; 1 Corinthians 1:10; Ephesians 4:17, 23; Colossians 2:18; 1 Timothy 6:5; 2 Timothy 3:8; Titus 1:15)” (G3563). Paul expanded his teaching on the renewal of the mind in his letter to the Ephesians. Paul said:

Now this I say and testify in the Lord, that you must no longer walk as the Gentiles do, in the futility of their minds. They are darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart. They have become callous and have given themselves up to sensuality, greedy to practice every kind of impurity. But that is not the way you learned Christ!—assuming that you have heard about him and were taught in him, as the truth is in Jesus, to put off your old self, which belongs to your former manner of life and is corrupt through deceitful desires, and to be renewed in the spirit of your minds, and to put on the new self, created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness. (Ephesians 4:17-24)

Paul said that unbelievers are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Ephesians 4:18). Darkness was being used metaphorically to describe a mind that is void of spiritual truth. Jesus told his followers, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (John 8:12). Luke’s gospel tells us that after Jesus’ resurrection, he appeared to his disciples and told them, “’These are my words that I have spoken to you while I was still with you, that everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled.’ Then he opened their minds to understand the Scriptures” (Luke 24:44-45). The Greek word that is translated opened, dianoigo (dee-an-oyˊ-go) means “to open thoroughly, literally (as a first-born)” (G1272). Jesus’ opening of the minds of his followers was likely considered to be a part of the process of being born again. They received directly from Jesus an initial understanding of the Scriptures that had to do with his death and resurrection, repentance and forgiveness of sins (Luke 24:46-49) so that his disciples could proclaim the gospel and start bringing others to a saving knowledge of the Lord, Jesus Christ.

Peter indicated that new Christians need to be fed, just like newborn babies. Peter said that having purified our souls by obedience to the truth, we should love one another earnestly from a pure heart, “since you have been born again, not of perishable seed but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God” (1 Peter 1:22-23). And then, Peter went on to say, “So put away all malice and all deceit and hypocrisy and envy and all slander. Like newborn infants, long for the pure spiritual milk, that by it you may grow up into salvation” (1 Peter 2:1-2). The Greek word that Peter used for spiritual milk, logikos (log-ik-osˊ) is derived from the word logos (logˊ-os) which has to do with “the expression of thought…in this respect it is the message from the Lord, delivered with His authority and made effective by His power…’The Personal Word,’ a title of the Son of God” (G3056). “Logikos pertains to the reasoning faculty, reasonable, rational and is used of the service rendered by believers in presenting their bodies a living sacrifice. The sacrifice is to be in accordance with the spiritual intelligence of those who are new creatures in Christ and are mindful of the mercies of God; in contrast to those offered by ritual and compulsion (Romans 12:1)…It is found also in 1 Peter 2:2, ‘(milk) of the word’ and so here the nourishment may be understood as of that spiritually rational nature which, acting through the regenerate mind, develops spiritual growth. God’s word is not given so that it is impossible to understand it, or that it requires a special class of men to interpret it; its character is such that the Holy Spirit who gave it can unfold its truths even to the young convert” (G3050).

In his second letter, Peter talked about spiritual growth in the context of believers becoming partakers of the divine nature. Peter said:

His divine power has granted to us all things that pertain to life and godliness, through the knowledge of him who called us to his own glory and excellence, by which he has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them you may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire. For this very reason, make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love. For if these qualities are yours and are increasing, they keep you from being ineffective or unfruitful in the knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ. (2 Peter 1:3-8)

Peter indicated that believers must supplement their faith, which meant that something needed to be added to faith in order for it to be effective. The Greek word epichoregeo (ep-ee-khor-ayg-ehˊ-o), which is translated supplement, comes from the root words epi (ep-eeˊ) and choregeo (khor-ayg-ehˊ-o). Choregeo is where the English word choreography comes from. Choreography is the sequence of steps and movements in dance. I believe Peter was laying out for believers the sequence of steps that need to be followed in order for them to produce spiritual fruit. Peter said, “supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love” (2 Peter 1:5-7), suggesting there might be a progressive flow from one spiritual attribute to the next.

Paul talked about the way of love in his first letter to the Corinthians. Paul said:

Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful;it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

Love never ends. As for prophecies, they will pass away; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in part and we prophesy in part, but when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away. When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I gave up childish ways. For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I have been fully known.

So now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; but the greatest of these is love. (1 Corinthians 13:4-13)

Paul said, “The greatest of these is love” (1 Corinthians 13:13). The Greek word meizon (mideˊ-zone) associates greatness with age (G3187). Paul may have been thinking of the greatness of love in terms of spiritual maturity or as indicator of spiritual growth. Paul said that when he was a child, he spoke like a child, but “When I became a man, I gave up childish ways” (1 Corinthians 13:11). Peter indicated that pure spiritual milk would help believers to grow up into salvation (1 Peter 2:2).

Peter referred to the qualities that produce spiritual growth as things that need to be practiced. He said, “If you practice these qualities you will never fall” (2 Peter 1:10). In this instance, fall has to do with committing sin (G4417). Peter’s assertion that you will never fall if you practice the qualities of virtue, knowledge, self-control, steadfastness, godliness, brotherly affection, and love make it seem as if it is possible for a believer to live a perfect life. The point that I believe Peter was trying to make was not that practice makes perfect, but that a continual effort toward spiritual growth will keep you from experiencing moral failure. Paul explained in his letter to the Romans that Israel’s rejection of their Messiah made it possible for the entire world to be reconciled to God (Romans 11:15) and indicated that Israel would at some point in the future be grafted back into the family of God (Romans 11:24). Paul said, “As regards the gospel, they are enemies for your sake. But as regards election, they are beloved for the sake of their forefathers. For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable” (Romans 11:28-29). The irrevocableness of God’s gifts and calling is based on the impossibility of us changing God’s will for our lives. In particular, God’s plan of salvation was instituted before the foundation of the world (Ephesians 1:4) and our predestination for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ is guaranteed by the Holy Spirit who seals us until we acquire possession of our inheritance (Ephesians 1:13-14). Peter may have intended the qualities he identified in 2 Peter 1:5-7 to be a gauge of our spiritual progress, rather than a prescription for our spiritual success.

The life of Samson is an Old Testament example of stunted spiritual growth. We know that Samson had faith because he is listed in Hebrews 11:32 as one of those “who through faith conquered kingdoms, enforced justice, obtained promises, stopped the mouths of lions, quenched the power of fire, escaped the edge of the sword, were made strong out of weakness, became mighty in war, put foreign armies to flight” (Hebrews 11:33-34). Samson’s marriage to one of the daughters of the Philistines was used by God as an opportunity against the Philistines, but it resulted in Samson returning to his parents’ home “in hot anger” (Judges 14:19). God gave Samson superhuman strength in order to deliver the Israelites from the Philistines (note on Judges 13:24) and the Spirit of the LORD rushed upon him on multiple occasions (Judges 14:6, 19; 15:14), but Samson didn’t seem to make much spiritual progress during the twenty years that he judged Israel. Samson’s lack of wisdom is evident in the decisions he made about getting involved with foreign women. After Samson’s Philistine wife “was given to his companion, who had been his best man” (Judges 14:20), it says in Judges 16:1, “Samson went to Gaza, and there he saw a prostitute, and he went in to her.” During the night, the Gazites set an ambush for Samson, “But Samson lay till midnight, and at midnight he arose and took hold of the doors of the gate of the city and the two posts, and pulled them up, bar and all, and put them on his shoulders and carried them to the top of the hill that is in front of Hebron” (Judges 16:3). Samson’s ability to escape the ambush may have caused him to become reckless or perhaps selfish with the gift that God had given him. “The true source of Samson’s great strength was not in his long hair or in abstaining from strong drink. His might came from the Spirit of the LORD (Judges 15:14) and was provided by God to accomplish his will” (note on Judges 15:14, 15).

After Samson’s escape from the ambush in Gaza, Judges 16:4-6 tells us:

He loved a woman in the Valley of Sorek, whose name was Delilah. And the lords of the Philistines came up to her and said to her, “Seduce him, and see where his great strength lies, and by what means we may overpower him, that we may bind him to humble him. And we will each give you 1,100 pieces of silver.” So Delilah said to Samson, “Please tell me where your great strength lies, and how you might be bound, that one could subdue you.”

The Philistines objective of overpowering Samson would not have been possible if Samson had refused to reveal the source of his superhuman strength to Delilah. “Samson’s admission to Delilah resulted in the breaking of his covenant, the Nazirite vow, and God left him as a result (Judges 16:20). His strength returned one more time, however, allowing him to decimate the Philistine leaders (Judges 16:30). This came about only after he humbly acknowledged that God was the true source of his strength (Judges 16:28)” (note on Judges 16:17).

Samson demonstrated virtue, the manifestation of God’s divine power, but that seems to be where his spiritual growth stopped. Peter said that believers should “make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and your virtue with knowledge, and your knowledge with self-control” (2 Peter 1:5-6). The Greek word gnosis (gnoˊ-sis), which is translated knowledge, “means primarily ‘a seeking to know, an enquiry, investigation’” (G1108). Gnosis is derived from the word ginosko (ghin-oceˊ-ko). In the New Testament ginosko frequently indicates a relation between the person ‘knowing’ and the object known; in this respect, what is ‘known’ is of value or importance to the one who knows, and hence the establishment of the relationship” (G1097). Self-control “is the virtue of one who masters his desires and passions, especially his sensual appetites…In 2 Peter 1:6, it follows ‘knowledge,’ suggesting that what is learned requires to be put into practice” (G1466). Samson’s failure to learn from his experience with his first wife (Judges 14:17) resulted in him revealing information to Delilah that could be used against him. It says in Judges 16:16-17, “And when she pressed him hard with her words day after day, and urged him, his soul was vexed to death. And he told her all his heart.” The Hebrew word that is translated vexed, qatsar (kaw-tsarˊ) means “to harvest” (H7114) and is usually translated reap. Paul said in his letter to the Galatians, “Do not be deceived: God is not mocked, for whatever one sows, that will he also reap. For the one who sows to the flesh will from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit will from the Spirit reap eternal life” (Galatians 6:7-8).

Samson’s humble acknowledgement that God was the true source of his strength showed that his knowledge of God had been expanded through his experience of being betrayed by Delilah (Judges 16:18) and the suffering that followed (Judges 16:21). It says in Judges 16:28 that Samson called to the LORD. The Hebrew word qara (kaw-rawˊ) refers to “an encounter through the idea of accosting a person met” and is properly translated “address by name…To ‘call’ on God’s name is to summon his aid” (H7121). Judges 16:28 states, “Then Samson called to the LORD and said, ‘O Lord, God, please remember me and please strengthen me only this once, O God, that I may be avenged on the Philistines for my two eyes.” Samson called the LORD, Lord. The Hebrew word Adonay (ad-o-noyˊ) means “’Lord’ par excellence or ‘Lord over all,’ even as it sometimes does in the form adon (cf. Deuteronomy 10:17, where God is called the ‘God of gods, and Lord of lords’; Joshua 3:11, where He is called the ‘Lord of all the earth’). The word adonay appears in Genesis 15:2: ‘And Abram said, Lord God, what wilt thou give me, seeing I go childless….’” (H138). According to Revelation 19:16, the name “King of kings and Lord of lords will be written on Jesus’ robe and on his thigh at the time of his second coming. It seems that before he gained the victory over his enemies (Judges 16:29-30), Samson had to recognize and acknowledge Jesus in this way.

Spiritual progress

The underlying message of Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians was spiritual progress. Paul started by depicting his work of preaching the gospel as laying a foundation that others could build on (1 Corinthians 3:10), then he identified the type of building that was being constructed by asking the rhetorical question, “Do you not know that you are God’s temple and that God’s Spirit dwells in you?” (1 Corinthians 3:16, ESV). The analogy of building a house for God was Paul’s way of explaining the slow, but steady spiritual progress believers were expected to make in their growth as a Christian. When Paul talked about celebrating the Lord’s supper and receiving spiritual gifts, he was explaining to the Corinthians a spiritual process that sometimes takes place outside of our awareness. Afterward, Paul stated, “But earnestly desire the best gifts. And yet I show you a more excellent way” (1 Corinthians 12:31, NKJV).

The excellent way of love that Paul described in 1 Corinthians 13 was about an intentional effort to grow in one’s faith. Paul wanted the Corinthians to understand that there would come a time in their spiritual growth when they would have to work harder if they wanted to continue to make progress. Paul instructed the Corinthians to “Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy” (1 Corinthians 14:1, ESV), then he went on to explain that speaking in tongues compared to prophesy was useless in building up the body of Christ. He stated, “The one who speaks in a tongue builds up himself, but the one who prophesies builds up the church” (1 Corinthians 14:4). The point I believe Paul was trying to make was that increased spiritual progress has more to do with helping others to grow than helping ourselves.

The Greek word Paul used to describe spiritual progress was oikodomeo (oy-kod-om-eh’-o). Oikodomeo, as a verb, means literally “to build a house” (G3618). Paul may have wanted the Corinthians to understand that when Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:2), he was talking about an actual house or place for them to live in. Paul clarified this point in a letter he later wrote to Timothy. He said, “but if I am delayed, I write so that you may know how you ought to conduct yourself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth” (1 Timothy 3:15, NKJV). Paul was writing to Timothy about leaders in the church setting a good example for others. Paul’s reference to “how you ought to conduct yourself” meant that he was looking for a certain type of behavior in mature Christians and told Timothy that godliness was a great mystery (1 Timothy 3:16).

The Greek word translated mystery in 1 Timothy 3:16 is musterion (moos-tay’-ree-on). In the New Testament musterion “denotes, not the mysterious (as with the English word), but that which, being outside the range of unassisted natural apprehension, can be made known only by divine revelation, and is made known in a manner and at a time appointed by God, and to those only who are illumined by His Spirit…its Scriptural significance is truth revealed” (G3466). Paul eluded to this in 1 Corinthians 14:19 when he said, “Yet in church I had rather speak five words with my understanding, that by my voice I might teach others also, than ten thousand words in an unknown tongue.” Regarding spiritual progress, Paul was saying that being able to teach others the truth of God’s word through the anointing of the Holy Spirit was the ultimate expression of godliness or Christlike character.