Sermon series: The Measure of Our Maturity

Main Scripture References: 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3; 2 Corinthians 3:18

  1. Getting Inside Your Defenses

  2. Faith that Puts You to Work

  3. Hope that Makes You Endure

  4. Love that Gets Its Hands Dirty


In the 1st Century A.D., the common language in the known world was Greek. The NT is almost exclusively written in this picturesque language. One particular word that shows up 38 times in the NT sets up our study this morning. The word is skandalon, from which we have transliterated our English word "scandal," certainly a loaded word in our culture today. Just hearing it spoken sparks certain emotions within us!

But it was how the Greeks used this word that gives it teeth in the Bible. The word was commonly used by the hunter. One scholar suggests that we picture a bear trap when we see this word. It's a round, spring-loaded device with jagged metal teeth. Once the trap is anchored, it is then snapped open, with some alluring bait placed on a small plate located in the middle of the trap. The unsuspecting animal is drawn in by the seduction of its senses only to discover too late that this was not a free meal.

That small plate where the bait is placed? That's the trigger. Touch that plate and the trap snaps shut. The Greeks called that part of the bear trap the skandalon. It was the Holy Spirit who inspired the NT writers to pick this word up when they described how sin works. There are snares that are carefully camouflage and seductively baited with lures that promise to meet a perceived need, seem harmless, and feel thrilling. But make no mistake about it - a trap has been placed by a very skillful hunter who means to scandalize you!

Last week we unmasked this hunter in Eph. 6, and posed the following question: If Satan were to blow you out of the water - if he were to scandalize you - how do you think he would do it? The Bible underscores the reality that you are being stalked by an cunning enemy, an enemy who is compared to a hungry lion seeking whom he may devour.

The call to arms from God is to fight back with holiness. We armor up for battle, we uncover and uproot traps set by our enemy by a surrendered life, a life described in Eph. 6 as rooted in God's Word, obedient to God's will, ready with the Gospel, and prayed up. You are an incredibly powerful weapon in God's hand when you stay clean through confession, yielded to His Spirit, and active in His purposes!

So spiritual warfare is tied to how you live your Christian life, linked to whether you're growing stronger and stronger as you get older in the Lord. It is for this reason that we want to take THE MEASURE OF OUR MATURITY. We're asking the Holy Spirit to see how we're shaping up spiritually, both as individuals and as a church.

The criteria:

Let me identify the standard against which our spiritual vital signs will be measured. The Holy Spirit has named three qualities that literally jump off the pages of the NT. They form a comprehensive way to assess our Christian living. The most well-known appearance of this trilogy of spiritual markers is in 1 Cor. 13:13. Paul closes this famous chapter in the Bible by naming three vital qualities that endure. "Now these three remain: faith, hope, and love. But the greatest of these is love."

This grouping of faith, hope, and love might seem random if it did not appear so many other times in the NT. For example, in Eph. 1:15-16, 18, Paul gives thanks to God in prayer for the Ephesians' faith in the Lord Jesus and their love for all the saints, and then in v. 18 prays that they may know what is the hope of His calling, what are the glorious riches of His inheritance among the saints.

This trio of virtues show up again in Colossians 1:3-5: "We always thank God, the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, when we pray for you, for we have heard of your faith in Christ Jesus and of the love you have for all the saints, because of the hope reserved for you in heaven." Peter adopts this measure of maturity as well in 1 Peter 1:21-22. So does the book of Hebrews. In Chapter 10:22-24, the following charge is given: "Let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith . . . Let us hold on to the confession of our hope without wavering, for He who promised is faithful. And let us be concerned about one another in order to promote love and good works."

This is not incidental. It is very intentional. The apostles hold up these three as criteria for measuring how a church is really doing. More than the attendance records or how big the budget is, more than how many and how freely the spiritual gifts are practiced, these three qualities reveal whether a church or a Christian is spiritually on track or wavering, and how susceptible they are to the invading, scandalizing lures of Satan.

The passage where this becomes most clear is 1 Thessalonians 1:2-3. In these opening lines to the church in the city of Thessalonica, Paul converts these spiritual markers into measurable standards. The Bible says, "We always thank God for all of you, remembering you constantly in our prayers. We recall, in the presence of our God and Father, your work of faith, labor of love, and endurance of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ."

This morning, we're asking the Holy Spirit to put us to the test with the first of those three, which we're calling FAITH THAT PUTS YOU TO WORK. Here's an outline of where we're headed this morning. We want to see 1. What's Gotten Into You, 2. What Should Be Coming Out of You, and 3. What To Do about the Gap.

I. What's gotten into you?

We usually ask this question when we encounter someone who is behaving differently. "What's gotten into you?" It's the right question for us to get a clear biblical picture of what Paul meant by your work of faith.

If you are a Christian - if you have been born again by the power of the Holy Spirit as He quickened you by the Gospel of Jesus Christ - then so many amazing things have happened for you! The Bible declares that record of your sins that was held against you in heaven has been canceled, having been nailed to the cross in Jesus Christ (Col. 2:14). You are forgiven; your sin debt completely settled by Jesus, and the result is so profound that Rom. 8:1 says of you, "Therefore there is now no condemnation for you who are in Christ Jesus." "God the Father has delivered you from the domain of darkness and transferred you to the kingdom of His beloved Son" (Col. 1:13).

And now nothing is able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus your Lord (Rom. 8:39). You have been adopted by God into a very large family (Rom. 8:15), granted anytime access to the throne room of heaven in prayer, where Jesus Christ stands as your High Priest and Mediator (Heb. 10:19-22). The stamp of His full acceptance has been given to you, for He has put His seal upon you and given you His Spirit as a guarantee of your heavenly inheritance (2 Cor. 1:21-22; Eph. 1:13; 4:20). And this Holy Spirit now lives within you (Rom. 8:9; I Cor. 6:19-20).

This is what's gotten into every person who has been born again through faith in Christ Jesus! This is the common experience of every believer. And this is the basis for understanding our key phrase in 1 Thessalonians 1, this spiritual measuring tape called your work of faith. If all that is what's gotten into you, then let's ask a second question.

II. What should be coming out of you?

The Bible makes it plain that there are significant implications in this reality that the Spirit of God Himself lives inside you. The Holy Spirit is not a reclusive tenant. He is not dormant. He dwells within you to take you on as His personal project. His goal is to transform you from the inside out so that you think, speak, and act just like Jesus.

Second Corinthians 3:18 is talking about what Christians can expect when it says that we all "are being transformed into the same image [of Christ] from glory to glory; this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit." We are being transformed - metamorphoo - from which we get our word metamorphosis. It means your spiritual DNA is in the process being overwritten. Your essential nature is being altered by the Holy Spirit, and these inward changes always produce an outward expression. In other words, what's gotten into you through your faith in Christ Jesus has got to come out of you! First John 2:6 says it like this: "The one who says he remains in [Christ] must walk just as [Jesus] did."

This is exactly what Paul has in mind when he writes about your work of faith, or more accurately, "your work produced by faith." It is the outward manifestation of the inward work of the Holy Spirit in the life of a true believer. It is the evidence that the Spirit of Christ lives within you. Ephesians 2:10 makes this connection when it says that we are "his creation, created in Christ Jesus for good works which God prepared ahead of time so that we should walk in them."

So, if your claim to be a Christian is indeed a reality, your Christian life should be an increasingly accurate portrait of Jesus Christ. Is it? As the years pass, new details and expressions of His thoughts and His actions should be making their way on the canvas of your life. Are you being filled with all the fullness of God (Eph. 3:19)? Is your attitude increasingly like that of Christ, "who existing in the form of God, did not consider equality with God as something to be used for His own advantage. Instead, He emptied Himself by assuming the form of a slave" (Phil. 2:6-7)? Your walk should be governed more and more by the Scriptures and less and less by the world.

This is the expectation of every true believer, so much so that James 2:14 poses the question: "What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can his faith save him?" And the answer is no.

Erin Bunting once blogged about a time when she fell under conviction about her life while at the grocery store. These words are from her blog: "The label on the bottle said: 'Blueberry Pomegranate, 100 percent juice, all natural.' There was a picture of a ripe pomegranate [spilling] its exotic, glistening seeds onto mounds of fat, perfect blueberries. But then I read the ingredients list: "Filtered water, pear juice concentrate, apple juice concentrate, grape juice concentrate." Where was the blueberry? Where was the pomegranate? Finally, I found them, fifth and seventh on a list of nine ingredients, after mysteriously unspecified "natural flavors."

"By law," Erin writes, "food ingredients are listed in descending order of weight. That means a product contains the greatest proportion of the first ingredient on the list and successively less of those farther down. So according to this list, the jug in my hand held mostly water and other juices, with just enough blueberry and pomegranate for flavor and color.

"In the bottom corner of the front label, in small, easy-to-miss type, were the tell-tale words: 'Flavored juice blend with other natural ingredients.' The enticing pictures and clever labeling were decoys to sell a diluted, blueberry-pomegranate flavored product, convincingly disguised to look like something it wasn't. I put the juice back on the shelf.

"I left the store empty-handed and wondering, 'What if I had an ingredients list printed on me? Would Jesus be the main ingredient? If not, how far down the list would he be? Would the "label" [that everyone sees] accurately represent my contents? Or would I falsely project a misleading outward appearance that cleverly masked diluted ingredients? [Am I] Jesus-flavored [or] Jesus-filled?'"

George Barna's surveys of the American church have led him to conclude half of all adults who attend Protestant churches on a typical Sunday morning are not Christian, and the majority of those who call themselves Christians are not born-again in the biblical sense. Billy Graham has publicly stated his belief that "the greatest mission field in the world is not the foreign field or the home field; it is the mission field of the membership rolls of American churches." These men join a chorus of voices that say the same thing. Why? Because the Bible says by their fruits you shall know them. Because Jesus said, "Out of the mouth the heart speaks." Is the fruit of who I really am, is what is spilling out of me in my everyday living moving more toward 100-percent Jesus, or is He just added for flavoring? That raises one more question:

III. What should I do about the gap?

The gap is the distance between who God wills me to be and who I really am. As the Holy Spirit stretches this measuring tape of a living faith that produces Christ-like works in our lives, there is no one in the room that doesn't have gaps in various places in our lives where we are not yet what He has called us to be.

This morning, as we grapple with this distance, a temptation is near at hand. A trap is being set, and the bait is highly effective. What's the temptation? Pretend. Fake it. Counterfeit. Don't bow and cry out for God's grace. Compare yourself with fellow lukewarm Christians and blow off any sense that this may be more much more dangerous than you realize. Act like you're okay. Don't change a thing. Comfort yourself with misguided assurances that your behavior has nothing to do with your faith. Oh how alluring this is and how many have been trapped to their destruction!

But be warned: when Judgment Day comes and we stand before God, He will look to our outward behavior as the determining factor in your eternal destiny. Romans 2:6 says that when your turn comes to stand alone before the living God, He will repay each one according to his works. The evidence that we are born again by the Spirit of God will be demonstrated in the most obvious and irrefutable of ways: what we did and didn't do. God will use an infallible means of showing the true, blue you because what's inside you must come out. Your deeds are the gauge of what fills your heart. They will show whether you are truly Jesus-filled or He just an additive in your life.

What does God want you and me to do about the gaps? 2 Cor. 13:5: Test yourselves to see if you are in the faith. Examine yourselves. Or do you yourselves not recognize that Jesus Christ is in you? - unless you fail the test!

Lloyd Stilley is pastor of First Baptist Church, Gulf Shores, Alabama. He is a graduate of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is married to Leeanne and is the father of Joey and Craig.