Growing into the full Stature of Christ
YEN-ZEN TSAI (TAIPEI, TAIWAN)
We are approaching the end of the
twentieth century. A new century will be dawning soon. Living in this
transitional period, we are compelled to look back, to think, and to prepare
for the coming new age. Let us begin with examining our identity as Christians.
We used to be sinners, unworthy of
God’s love. But God, through His divine grace, called us into His fold. We were
grateful and determined to be His followers. This tremendous conversion
experience is the indelible memory that stays with us as long as we take our
Christian identity seriously. We may however, react inadequately to the
experience of grace and love. We have recognised that God is a merciful God. He
is also almighty - so lofty and transcendent that we feel our lowliness. His
omnipotence and absolute goodness, manifested in His redemptive act, sometimes
appear so overwhelming that we feel ourselves all the more humbled and totally
dependent on Him. We feel secure with this sentiment. We regard our
self-abasement as a virtue that makes us more deserving of God’s grace. We hold
that our nothingness in contrast to God’s almightiness is the appropriate
description that defines our relationship with Him. Gradually our understanding
of God as an active, all-giving figure and ourselves as passive, receiving
beings is reasonably justified.
This is indeed a misconception. It
prevents us from being mature and responsible Christians. Hebrews instructs us
to “leave the elementary doctrine of Christ and go on to maturity” (Heb 6:1),
emphasising the importance of growing from spiritual childhood to adulthood
(Heb 5:1 2-14). The Apostle Paul specifies that mature manhood should be
understood against “the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (Eph
4:13). In other words, continual growth and progress is required of us
Christians, and Christ is the criterion by which we measure our growth.
We should remember that Jesus
Christ, although God incarnate, had gone on to maturity through a series of
stages of growth. He was not born a mature man. Nor did He acquire His power
and wisdom without much ado. Rather, He was conscious of His weakness but aimed
to accomplish His goal through continuous effort. In His childhood, He was
studious about spiritual learning, “sitting among the teachers, listening to
them and asking them questions” (Lk 2:46). He first realised the importance of
being in the “Father’s house” (Lk 2:49). He already knew very well then how
essential it was to absorb spiritual knowledge, in view of the mission
entrusted to Him. The self-awareness and the concomitant effort kept Him
growing “in wisdom and in stature, and in favour with God and man” (Lk 2:52).
In His manhood, Jesus evangelised.
As powerful God, He performed miracles from time to time whenever and wherever
occasion deemed fit. But this does not mean that He accomplished His work
effortlessly. His long preparation for the holy work was far beyond what we
would expect. In order to choose the twelve disciples, for example, “He went
out to the mountain to pray; and all night He continued in prayer to God” (Lk
6:12). Did He not know whom He should choose? Or was He so indecisive that He
needed God to strengthen His will? The true picture is that He wanted to show
us the importance of growing, particularly when encountering difficulties. The
two places He frequently visited, the temple in the daytime and the mountain at
night (Lk 21:37), bespeak His effort to consolidate His work and His
preparation. These two modes of activity, work and prayer support each other.
They also show that Jesus’ growth was always dynamic and goal-oriented.
Jesus regarded growing into
maturity as absolutely essential. At one time He led His three closest
disciples, Peter, James and John, to a mountain whereupon He was transfigured.
“As He was praying, the appearance of His countenance was altered, and His
raiment became dazzling white” (Lk 9:29). Moses and Elijah appeared with Him in
glory (Lk 9:30-31). It is correct to interpret the passage as indicating what
Jesus was about to accomplish in the near future. More revealing is the fact
that Jesus was showing His disciples how essential it was to grow spiritually,
to the extent of becoming “dazzling white”. If the Master sets a good example,
can His disciples do otherwise? Jesus’ exemplary act implies this important
Most climatic is the event that
happened at the last stage of Jesus’ life. There we see how Jesus learned to
grow into absolute obedience, the hardest lesson of all. Although He had been
growing all the time, the final task proved so insurmountable that He was
hesitating and struggling in His heart. With earnest and importunate prayers,
He asked God for more power to complete the assignment. “And being in an agony
He prayed more earnestly; and His sweat became like great drops of blood
falling down upon the ground” (1k 22:44). A life-or-death struggle appeared
before the disciples’ eyes, although, unfortunately, they had all fallen
asleep. Persisting in what He had always been doing, that is, continuous
growing, Jesus struck His last blow and broke through His physical limits to
the final consummation. Because of this, the mission of salvation was realised.
Jesus’ continuous growth was a
process from humanity to divinity; it was indeed an arduous and circuitous
process. By determination and ceaseless effort, He trod His way to full
maturity. Jesus’ example is a model for Christians, and we have a lot to learn
from Him at this turn of the century.
In the first place, we have to be
keenly aware of the era in which we are living. Jesus once lamented that His
contemporaries were a “faithless generation” (Mk 9:19). More careful
observation reveals that, from the spiritual perspective, our generation and
the generations to come might be even more disheartening. The new age,
characterised by scientism, cultural pluralism, thorough secularisation,
nihilism, etc., will pose a great challenge to our faith. Pursuing spiritual
maturity in an environment like this naturally demands more strength and
devotion. A longer preparation and struggle are inevitable, and it is wise to
recognise this fact from the outset.
There can be no argument that, in
such a complex world, the pursuit of knowledge is necessary for our maturity.
Here knowledge is not for knowledge’s sake, but for the benefit of helping our
faith grow. In a narrower sense, knowledge of the scripture, “profitable for
teaching, for reproof, for correction and for training in righteousness” (2 Tim
3:16), is a fundamental requirement. It is the source of power by which we
judge and evaluate. In a wider sense, other types of worldly knowledge,
including those of language, history, philosophy, world religions, social and
natural sciences, etc., should be respected and learned in earnest. They are important
means through which we come into contact with the world and by which we conduct
our daily lives. A truly mature believer is one who is able to combine
spiritual and worldly knowledge to work for his or her own good.
In the process of His growing,
Jesus, on the one hand, constantly prayed to God and, on the other hand,
invited His disciples to join His effort. Prayer is indeed the breath of
Christians. It is the source from which we derive our spiritual life. In view
of the coming challenge, its importance cannot be overemphasised. Praying is
the creation of an inner sanctuary where we and God engage in an intimate
dialogue. It is a holy place which is qualitatively different from those places
where we conduct our daily activities. The prayer hour, likewise, is a holy
time which we and God enjoy together. Extracting ourselves from our routines,
we cherish this wonderful moment and devote ourselves to the spiritual
exercise. It is only in the holy place and during the holy time that we recover
our real selves; selves often easily forgotten in the secular world. Through
prayer we renew our spirit and strengthen our will to go on to maturity.
We should also be reminded that it
is important to have spiritual companions with whom we can grow together. Jesus’
co-workers were mostly spiritually weak, but He never ceased inviting and
encouraging them. In contrast, we are fortunate to be surrounded “by so great a
cloud of witnesses” (Heb 12:1), be they ancient Christians or current church
members. Their experiences we should share. These accumulated, collective
experiences are the inspiration by which we “run with perseverance the race
that is set before us” (Heb 12:1). Growing into maturity should not be a lone
act. It is God’s purpose to call us as a group to be His disciples, because He
knows that we might easily lose heart. With mutual support, we are not afraid
to stumble but are strengthened to pursue our course.
The coming era will be a time full
of challenges. The world will be more complicated and, spiritually speaking,
more dangerous. But Jesus is the beacon which guides our path. Since He has run
the good course and set a good example as an ever-growing man, we have good
reason to be courageous and follow His footsteps faithfully. Whatever difficulties
we may encounter and whatever decisions we have to make in our lives, we are
assured that Jesus had gone through the same process and come out triumphantly.
He would surely like to see us grow into full maturity as He did.