A TIME FOR GROWTH
April 17, 2005
In our part of the country, this is the time of the year when living things grow. Some of us recognize this fact by mowing the grass. Maybe you have recognized it by planting the garden or by gathering flowers to enjoy. Some of us may recognize it merely by sneezing through the whole process! But we all know that this is the time of the year when things that are alive grow.
It would be good, I think, if Christians would let this also be a reminder of the necessity of growth in our spiritual lives. I couldn’t help but notice it this past week in our daily Bible reading as we read about Paul’s relationship with the church at Thessalonica. Apparently, according to the first part of Acts 17, Paul was only able to work actively at Thessalonica for about three weeks before persecution was stirred up and he had to go to another city. So in his letter to this young congregation, it is no surprise that he is much concerned with the growth of these fairly new Christians. He uses words like increasing, abounding, and doing so more and more. I want you to notice in the first letter the prayers that he raises in this regard, and in the second letter the thanksgiving that he offers indicating that these prayers have been answered in the affirmative, and that the Christians at Thessalonica had indeed been growing.
Notice I Thess. 3:12. He is praying to God the Father here and he says, “and may the Lord make you increase (there is the first of these words) and abound (like an ocean overflowing) in love for one another and for all, as we do for you.” He is praying that these folks will increase and abound in their love for each other and for everybody.
Then notice I Thess. 4:1. He prays, “Finally, then, brothers, we ask and urge you in the Lord Jesus, that as you received from us how you ought to live and to please God, just as you are doing, that you do so more and more.” There is a prayer that they might grow in holy living.
Then skip down to 4:9-10. Here he says, “Now concerning brotherly love you have no need for anyone to write to you, for you yourselves have been taught by God to love one another, for that indeed is what you are doing to all the brothers throughout Macedonia But we urge you, brothers, to do this more and more.” There is a recognition of some growth that has taken place and an urging for them to continue developing and growing more and more.
Now skip over to II Thess. 1:3-4. Here the apostle Paul says, “We ought always to give thanks to God for you, brothers, as is right, because your faith is growing abundantly, and the love of every one of you for one another is increasing. Therefore we ourselves boast about you in the churches of God for your steadfastness and faith in all your persecutions and in the afflictions that you are enduring.” Notice in that reading Paul is giving thanks for the growth that has occurred in answer to those prayers in the first letter. These passages together identify a theme which is very present in all of the letters of the New Testament, and it is that the Lord wants his people to be always moving forward, increasing, growing, developing, maturing, becoming what he wants for us to be.
Areas For Growth
Let’s explore that idea in our study this morning, and we would like to begin by just noticing certain areas for growth that the New Testament always lays before Christians to challenge us. The ultimate aim of all growth is amazing, and it is summed up in a couple of terms. In I Peter 2:2, the idea is that “you may grow up to salvation.” The thought is that God gives us salvation, but he expects us to grow up to it. There is no salvation without growth and development. There is the old story about the little boy whose parents put him to bed one evening. A few minutes went by and it wasn’t long until they heard a thump. He began to cry, and his parents rushed in there and asked him, “Son, what’s wrong?” And his answer was, “I stayed too close to where I got in.” Sometimes in the church we are not surprised to hear the thump of people who quit because they stay too close to where they got in.
In Ephesians 4:15, the aim of our growth is said to be growing up in Christ. Verse 15 says, “We are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ.” That is, our lives are to develop more and more and more and more into a life like the one who is the head of the body. The reason that we are never through growing is that our Lord is inexhaustible in his greatness. You can grow up for a lifetime in Jesus and still need to be growing because of how great Jesus is.
While the ultimate aim of our growth is salvation and growing up in Jesus, the New Testament does lay before us certain specific areas in which we can grow and develop. The first one is faith, growing more and more in our trust for the Lord, and our acceptance of him and his will as being best for us, and our readiness to depend upon him and to act in obedience to what he has said. You may have noticed in II Thess. 1:3 Paul thanked God for these people because, he said, “Your faith is growing abundantly.” Look at the grass, the dandelions and the flowers and notice how they are growing. Ask yourself whether your faith is growing abundantly like that.
The second area for growth is character. There in I Thess. 4:1, he was instructing these people that as they have been taught how they ought to walk and to please God, they would do so more and more. He is talking about moral purity, and in this passage especially about sexual honor and purity in everyday life. Christians are to grow in that kind of holiness all through life. This idea of the development of character is pictured a little more fully over in II Peter 1:5-8. Peter has mentioned in verses 3 and 4 that God through his promises has granted us the privilege of becoming partakers of the divine nature. Here we are given the privilege to develop the kind of character our great Father in heaven has, so Peter says in verse 5, “For this very reason (because you have been given the privilege of partaking of the divine nature, in other words), make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue (moral excellence and honor), 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.” We need to be growing and developing a more Christ-like character throughout our lives, young or old.
The third specific area for growth that the New Testament lays before us is, of course, love – two kinds - the brotherly love (the “philadelphia” kind of love) and the unselfish love of God for everybody, the “agape” love of good will. In II Thess. 1:3 he speaks of “the love of every one of you for one another” which he says “is increasing.” In I Thess. 4:9, he mentions that they had been taught by God to love one another, and they are doing so, and they should do this more and more. In I Thess. 3:12, he says, “increase and abound in love for one another and for all.” There is an enlightening added thought in I Thess. 3:13. When he prayed that they may be increasing and abounding in love, he explains the reason why: “so that he may establish your hearts blameless in holiness before our God and Father, at the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints.” When we don’t grow in this way is when we begin to lag behind in holiness. Unholy attitudes and actions occur when we are not growing in the area of love like we should.
Dennis Gulledge told the story of two friends who were walking through the desert and got into an argument. One friend slapped the other one in the face. The one who got slapped was hurt, of course, but without saying a word stooped down and wrote in the said, “Today my best friend slapped me in the face.” They kept on walking for a good while until they found an oasis and, thirsty for water, they stopped to get a drink. But the one who had been slapped got stuck in the mud or quicksand. He fell in and was being sucked down and drowning. His friend reached out and grabbed him and pulled him out and saved him. That evening the man who had been first slapped and then saved, wrote on a stone: “Today my best friend saved my life.” The friend who had slapped and saved this fellow asked him, “After I hurt you, you wrote in the sand and now you write on the stone. Why is that?” The fellow explained: “When someone hurts us we should write it in sand where the winds of forgiveness can erase it away, but when someone does something good for us we must engrave it in stone where it will be long remembered.” That is a pretty good illustration of loving behavior. Are their slights to be forgiven? Of course! We are human. Are there good things to be remembered and thanks to be offered for that? Of course! We are brothers and sisters, and we should grow in love.
Fourth, we need to be growing at all times in service, good works, things done to honor the Lord and help people be saved. In Rev. 2:19 the Lord addresses the church at Thyatira. They had problems they were facing, but the Lord said to them, “One thing that I know about you is that your ladder works exceed the first.” They were growing in service. I wonder if the Lord, walking among the candlesticks, were to address the North National church. Could he say to us, “Your latter works exceed the first” or would we be trying to point him in past direction and say, “But look what we did back there.” We need to be growing in service. In I Thess. 1:3 Paul is praising these people in part, “for your work of faith and your labor of love.” Should we grow in faith? Yes! Should we grow in love? Yes! But both of those things must then lead to growth and service. One of the best ways for us to focus that attention is for us to devote ourselves more to trying to help other folks get to heaven.
I read in a report a while back from the Institute for American Church Growth. They asked 10,000 people across this country this question: “What was responsible for your coming to Christ and his church?” Let me read you their answers. One-half of one percent responded that they were influenced most by a gospel meeting. One percent replied that they had simply visited the church. Three percent indicated that they had a special need that was met by a particular church. Three percent said they just walked in off the street. Five percent gave credit to Bible classes. Six percent credited the minister. Here is the catcher. An incredible 79% of people who had come to Christ and his church said that a friend or relative influenced them the most. In our efforts to serve the Lord, each one of us finds ourselves in unique circumstances with opportunities to influence someone toward eternal salvation. Let’s grow in that area of service.
Fifth, we are to be growing in knowledge of the Lord. In II Peter 3:18, Peter gave his final instruction: “But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.” Grow to become gracious like he is gracious and grow in your understanding of the Lord. Get to the place where you can see how the Lord thinks and how the Lord works and who he is and what he wants. In Col. 1:10, Paul prayed for these people that they would be increasing in the knowledge of God. There is the most important kind of knowledge there is.
Means of Growth
Grow then to be like Jesus, but also grow in faith, character, love, service and knowledge of God. How do we accomplish that task of growing? A few years ago in one of my Bible classes we decided that we would study a quarter by asking the class members all to make a list of their top ten biggest problems in living as a Christian. The class completed that assignment, and I took them and compiled them. One of the very top things on the list of that class was, “How do I grow in Christ? How do I develop my spiritual life? How do I mature in the Lord?” The overall answer to that question is, of course, to rely a lot on the Lord because God grows things. How does the grass grow or a flower grow or a tree grow? God grows it! God grows people, too. In Col. 2:19, it talks about how every member of the body grows with a growth that is from God. If a member of the body of Christ grows, God has to grow him. In I Thess. 3:12, Paul prayed, “And may the Lord make you increase and abound.” He was praying to God for God to grow his people. The idea is that God is the one who gives life, and God is also the one who gives increase in abundance in life. The very first step toward growth is recognizing our dependence on God for any growth that a living thing accomplishes, and that includes us.
But there are some practical things that always go with anything that grows. One has to be nourishment. How many of you have put fertilizer on the grass or on the garden already? You know that growing things have to have nourishment. How many of you intend to feed the kids lunch sometime today? You know that growing things need nourishment. I ran across an old friend who had kind of a dry sense of humor. He always saw the pessimistic side of things. He and his wife had three children, and I hadn’t seen them for a while. I said, “How’s your family doing? How are the kids?” He said, “They’re eating well.” The grocery bill was doing fine! Living things have to have nourishment.
In I Peter 2, as Peter addresses these Christians who have been born again through their obedience to the living and abiding word (I Peter 1:22-23), he says to them in 2:1-2, “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 to salvation.” How much does a baby long for that nourishment? You and I are supposed to long for the milk of the word that same way, and we are supposed to get rid of the things that inhibit our appetite. When I am a person who is occupied with malice or ill-will toward someone, if I have been caught up in envy or slander, I sit there with those things on my mind and there is not a way in the world in which the nourishment of the Lord’s word can get through. I don’t care how it is presented! Get rid of the things that inhibit the appetite. The sad fact of the matter is that a lot of us who go by strict schedules to feed our babies or ourselves neglect the nourishment of the Lord’s word. You can’t grow without nourishment.
Then, there is exercise. That little child has to be allowed to crawl and then run and play. You and I have to discipline to exercise ourselves to keep ourselves strong. The same thing is true spiritually. Somebody said that living the Christian life is like riding a bicycle – unless you keep moving you will fall off. In I Thess. 4:10, Paul said to these people as he instructed them in brotherly love, “For that is indeed what you are doing.” Why could he thank God for their growth in the second letter? Because of the exercise they were gaining already.
I read about Lance Armstrong. After he won his sixth Tour de France, the paper in France came out with an article titled, “The Sun King Storms Paris” about Armstrong. Everybody admired how effortless he sailed up those hills. Armstrong spoke about it this way: “I read that I flew up the mountains of France, but you don’t fly up a mountain. You struggle slowly and painfully and maybe, if you work very hard, you get to the top ahead of everyone else and you do not give in to pain. Everything hurts – your feet hurt, your hands hurt, your neck hurts, and of course your legs hurt. That is how you fly up a mountain.” The words that both Paul and Peter used that instruct us to add on our part are words that mean to put every energy you have into coming alongside what God has given us and done for us. Growth does not come without exercise. So nourishment is necessary, exercise is necessary. How much are you putting in? Faithfulness, Christian living, service to the Lord, loving other people? Honestly and truly, do you put one thing into that more than being here for an hour on Sunday morning? You are staying too close to where you got in then if that is your way of life.
Third, I want you to notice that growth requires an environment. I was looking at a bag of crabgrass preventor. It said on the bag that you have to put it on before the ground temperature gets up to 55 or so. It said if you don’t have a way of measuring the ground temperature, then you had better put it on before your dandelions puff out. Growing things do well in a certain kind of environment. The New Testament does not leave us in doubt about how that is for our spiritual lives. In John 15:4, 5, Jesus said, “Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing.” The environment that we need in order to grow spiritually is Christ.
It takes nourishment, exercise, environment, and fourth, it takes time. It took me a long time to get as big as I am now. It takes time to grow in other ways, too. In II Thess. 1:4, Paul is thanking God for the steadfastness and faith and all the persecutions and afflictions that these people are enduring. Paul knew that it took time to grow. Sometimes the words of some cynic describing Christianity strike too close to home. He claimed that most people who are Christians have actually only had an initial spasm followed by chronic inertia. It takes consistency over time to really grow.
This emphasis on growing and increasing and abounding in the Bible is really the recipe for the abundant life the Lord wants us to have. If you want to have an abundant life, then abound in growth. Here is the strength of the church and the direction for the church. If individual Christians are growing in faith and character and love and service and in the knowledge of God, then the church will be growing in all those ways, too.
What if this time of the year came sometime and there was no growing, no turning green, no flowers blossoming out, no trees budding, and no growth. That is what life is like where there is no spiritual growth. The Lord calls us to change that – to let him change that in us – to be growing. I urge each of us to make that beginning today. Start with the life planted in you. If you hear the good news of Jesus, then obey that from the heart, be born again, and then begin the process of growth and development. If we can help you in that action, won’t you let it be known now while we stand and sing together.