Open your Bibles to Ephesians 4 beginning at verse 14 and concluding at verse 16. The apostle Paul is in prison. He is manacled and his feet are tethered. He has left the church of Asia Minor in the leadership of gifted people. He has received word that the church has thwarted its growth process. It has been impeded for some peculiar reason. Verses 11-13 gives us an argument that God has given gifts to men for the purpose of building up the body of the Lord Jesus Christ that they may grow into the full measure of Jesus Christ. Paul has drawn the attention of the church as he marshals the argument of unity and says that there is "one Lord, one faith, one baptism." And now he drives this last point, beginning at verse 14 as he tells us to grow up.
Let's have fun with that. Turn to your neighbor and tell him, "Grow up." I wish I was out there. I would have pointed my finger at somebody. I would have said, "Grow up."
Listen to the Word of God this morning.
Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ. From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.
This is the Word of God. You may be seated.
There's more than one way to grow up. And sometimes when we grow, we don't grow due to some deficiency. There is a malfunction in our growth. In fact, there are some people who grow normally, and then for some unexplained reason they just stop growing. The shortest man in the world today is two feet and eight inches tall. He is normal in every other way except that his pituitary gland ceased to produce hormones for continued growth. It produced significantly less than what is needed to reach into a normal height. The technical term for this is "dwarfism." Today, the correct name for these individuals is "little people." But to emphasize the message this morning I'll use the technical term, dwarfism.
On the other hand, there are people who grow in the opposite direction. I'm glad my growth hormones finally stopped. The tallest man on record in the twentieth century was Robert Wadlow. He grew to be eight feet eleven inches tall. His internal organs were incapable of keeping up with the rapid growth, and he died as a result. You can grow tall, but only to a certain point.
How do you grow in a natural, normal, healthy, organic way? That's what Paul is addressing. Because he says that the only way a believer can really determine their growth in unity and maturity is by measuring it in the fullness of Jesus Christ. You used to have to go to the pediatrician, but now you can log the height, the weight, and the circumference of a child's head on the internet and predict the growth level of the baby. But there's no tool on the internet to measure your spiritual growth. All we have is the living Word of God in our hand. It gives us some insights about how we ought to grow.
The impediments to growth
Let's look at what Paul sketches out about growing up prayerfully and devotionally and analytically and decisively. Some of us never grow up because our growth has been impeded. In verse 14, Paul gives three images that relate to an impediment to our spiritual growth.
First, he says that our growth is impeded by immaturity. In verse 14 starts, "Then we will no longer be infants." As in any good argument, Paul starts with the negative before he moves to the positive. He starts by describing a child before he describes what it looks like to be an adult. He says we will no longer be infants, juvenile, unlearned, unschooled, untutored, legally a minor. In Greek, that word really means ignorant or stupid. "Then we will no longer be stupid." I'm glad the NIV says "no longer infants." Nothing is as dangerous or as disastrous as a person who comes to know Christ and feel like they've reached maturity in one day. It's as if a first grader on the first day in the first hour of school stood up and said, "I've got my education." That's how it feels when I meet some Christians. They have had an enormous religious experience and equate that to spiritual maturity. It's reminiscent of the maps of Christopher Columbus. When you look at Columbus' maps they're infantile and childish. All he had to base his maps on were the shorelines. He took no time to look at the scaling heights of mountains or the valley depths of the river and rivulets or the plains. All he had were shorelines, and his map looks infantile. That's how we enter into relationship with God. We come at the stage of a child, and we grow.
Paul is wise enough to believe that the people to whom he's writing understand exactly what he means. There's a difference between childishness and child-likeness. We enter into the kingdom of God as a child that clings desperately onto his parents in a stormy night, and that parent clings desperately to their child. That's what child-likeness looks like. But childishness is completely different. Paul says of himself, "When I was a child I thought as a child, I understood as a child. But when I became spiritually mature I put away childish things." Here the Word of God directs us not to be childish, not to be an infant.
Do you remember when your children were growing up? I certainly remember mine. Every day they wanted to be something else. One day they wanted to be a doctor. The next day they wanted to be an astronaut. Then they wanted to be an athlete, an entertainer. The next day they want to be an auto mechanic. Every day they changed. That's childish. I could have said, "Stop and grow up," but it wouldn't have done any good. That's just how children are: childish.
It's one thing for a child to flip flop. It's something else to be a thirty-year-old man who's unstable in everything that he's doing, in his personal life, in his family life, in his church life. One day he wants to be married. The next day he wants to be single. The next day he wants somebody else.
That's the next image that pops up in verse 14. Paul describes the unstable as "tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching." There's an instability factor in immature Christians.
Paul uses two metaphors, one nautical, one meteorological. First, he says, "You'll no longer be tossed to and fro." Where did he get that image? He's in Rome in prison while writing this. But Acts 27 describes a boat he was on, riding down the Mediterranean. One night a storm broke out. There was not a star in the sky. His rudderless raft was assaulted, and the swelling of the waves came against him. They were wave-tossed. That's what that word means: to be moved to and fro means to be wave-tossed. His little boat was capsized.
But then he didn't stop there. He said, "Then you'll no longer be … blown here and there by every wind of teaching." That's meteorological. That word actually means you will no longer be lifted up by every gust and gale of wind and turned around by everybody that comes along teaching something. You won't run after something just because they say it's religious.
There was a lady in this church who used to dance and shout every Sunday morning. She wrote me a letter telling me she was leaving, and she became a Mormon, because, as she said, "I finally found Jesus." It would be funny if it was not tragic that she traded in the living, resurrected Lord Jesus Christ for a Jesus that you could find on the West Coast. Not everything that has Jesus in it means it's the authentic, historical Christ.
Let me give you one more word: gullibility. Paul says, "… by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming." This phrase is beautiful. They have a mythology attached to how they deceive. They have a dexterous deception. Paul uses a word that means "dice." They are throwing dice. They are agile and dexterous in their deception. They know how to deceive. They are cunning and crafty with weighted matters of the spirit, like somebody playing dice. They play with spiritual things as if they were toys. Be careful when you're around people that take holy things and throw them to the dogs.
You can go on eBay and get an autographed copy of Jesus for $31.50. Does anybody get these autograph copies? We need some money to build a new building. Maybe we should start selling these things! Or better still, you can buy holy water right from the Jordan in a packaged deal—holy water, olive oil, and a stone for $8.50 with a guarantee that if you rub just one on you it will soothe what ails you. But nobody could bring that much holy water back from the Holy Land. It would be humorous if it were not tragic. Hundreds of thousands of people have bought this. These are not non-Christians, anti-Christian who buy this. These are the people who go to our church every Sunday morning.
The environment for growth
If these are impediments to spiritual growth, then what is the environment that we need to grow in? Verse 15 starts, "Instead, speaking the truth in love …" That's one of those phrases that begs the question, What is it here for? Is it just a throwaway line? It doesn't sound that important, does it? But when Paul uses the phrase "speaking the truth" you can always assume that he's referencing a specific object, a subject in the discussion.
The truth that he speaks about is the gospel, the good news about God. In the gospel the righteousness of God is revealed. That's the Scripture. That's Romans 1:16-17. So when he says "truth in love" this is not just truth in love. He's saying, preach the gospel in a way that they hear the truth but they hear it in love. That's what I try to do even when I'm agitated.
Truth without love is brutality. I've heard some sermons that just beat you over the head. Sometimes I feel like beating ya'll over the head, but I'm not going to do it. On the other hand, love without truth is hypocrisy. So you have to find a balance between the two. It's like a ship: you can take an ocean carrier and rip the material off its side and throw it in the water and it will sink, but put together it will float. The word translated "truth" here actually reads "truthing" in love. It keeps on. Keep speaking truth in love. Don't stop. When you preach, do it out of love. Don't do one without the other.
Science weighs in on this. For example, look at sodium chloride. Sodium is dependent upon another chemical. Chlorine can be innocuous, poisonous, and deadly. But if you put sodium and chlorine together it becomes common table salt. God wants us to bring truth and love together so that you can give flavor to the life of a believer.
Look at what Paul does later in verse 15: "… speaking the truth in love, we will in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ." This is the purpose of speaking truth in love. You hear the gospel that you may grow up into Christ. This is growth delineated. When you grow up in Christ it doesn't mean that you and Christ sit together. That is one of the interpretations that people have drawn away. No, he's the head and the source. You are the body part that gets its signal from the head, which is the center and the circumference, the control center of the church. The church is under the headship of Jesus Christ.
You know babies have to do that. When babies are born, they try to get their way. I saw a little lady and her husband packing their little, newborn baby. And I thought about how these little babies grow, and their little heads wobble all over. They just can't hold their big heads up! Why? Because the baby has not grown up to their proper proportion yet. We're growing up in proportion to the headship of Christ.
The thumbprints of growth
My last word is simply this: What are the thumbprints of spiritual maturity? Paul is writing on the assumption that if you're a Christian you really want to be mature. Before I stand up here on Sunday morning, I pray Saturday night, My church wants to be mature. I really do. I always say, I know my members want to be mature. The other day I told Ted, my assistant, "Ted, I am actually surprised, because I preached this same text about eight years ago in a series called 'Putting away Childish Things.' And I thought about how I have grown in writing this sermon compared to eight years ago. In my church everybody wants to grow. But I'm honestly shocked. The people down the street don't want to grow, and the people next door don't want to grow, but they do here. I'm blessed to have such an erudite congregation."
Paul assumes that every believer who has been born anew, born from above (John 3), desires to grow. They really want to grow in Christ. So people want to know what growth looks like. "How do I know that I've grown?" Have I grown just because I'm able to quote Scripture or because I've joined a church? I am so glad that you asked!
Verse 16 says, "From him [Christ] the whole body, joined and held together …" This points to an ongoing process of harmony. So one sign that you are immature, instable, or gullible or in the wrong environment is that you sit alone, isolated and think that you're a "Lone Ranger" Christian, a solo performer, in the faith by yourself. You don't want to be connected. You don't want to be involved. You don't want to cooperate with anybody else. That is a true sign that you aren't as mature as you thought.
"From him the whole body …" Here, Paul is alluding to two things—the body of Christ as the physical both and as the building. They are joined together and "held by every supporting ligament." A body is held together not just by sinew and skin but by vein and blood and the skeleton. Everything's connected. In fact, you can put an arm and a hand together and they would be irritated, rubbing, grinding. There's something in between the two. The wrist keeps things working. So even those little parts of the body that you don't think are all that necessary are important to keep on living. Life has a way of pointing out every little ligament and joint in your body if they aren't working right! Harmony is the key. When a church is in harmony, it points to its unity and its maturity. Unity typifies maturity. It's an ongoing process.
Finally, Paul writes, "… grows and builds itself up in love …" That's the living process of vitality. Paul says, "If you go to church without love, there are impediments to growth." You need to be able to identify them so that you can grow out of them. You don't want to be a baby forever, an infant forever. You don't want to be juvenile, silly, ignorant, unlearned, untutored forever. You don't want everything that comes along, every new wind of teaching driving you from one place to the next. Get in an environment that has been designed for your growth. An orchard needs a particular environment to grow in, the cactus needs the desert, and a Christian needs an environment. But not just any environment will work. You are not designed to grow by the internet. You are not designed to grow by television. You use them in your extra time, but that's not your priority. Your growth takes placed in the living, breathing, vital community called the church of the Lord Jesus Christ. It doesn't matter if you have to stand up on the walls or sit in another room. You came here to grow up into the headship of the Lord Jesus Christ.
We'll stand and wait everywhere else, won't we. We'll stand and wait to get an autograph from somebody we paid a ticket to see, someone who won't even say hello to us. We'll stand in line and want to take a picture with somebody that doesn't know our name. Let's park in our seat here, too, even if it's inconvenient. I want to hear people say, "Get out of the way. I'm trying to grow up into the head of Christ!"
We grow together. I'm talking to all of you in the back. You can't just put the weight on the group that sits up at the front. Back there you think, I'll just pop in when I can. No. We are all in it together. We're growing together.
And this is probably the most crucial indictment of every church in America: we have too few people doing too many things. We abuse and misuse. I know it's not you, but maybe it's your neighbor sitting next to you. They'll sit there and complain about everything that's wrong. I wish to God somebody in the church would say to them, "I hear you talking, but I don't see you doing!" Anybody can complain, but it takes growing people to fit together.
In South Africa there is a tree that grows in a peculiar place: in a cave, the Echo Caves. And scientists discovered that its growth is dependent upon its root system that goes down four hundred feet into the water. That's a long root. The tree survives by osmosis. Its cells are drinking in the water. They're pulling it up. And some cells are healthier than other cells. There are some cells that are all over the place, taking life, draining life. But there are healthy cells that are always pulling up life. But the healthy cells are not selfish cells. When it sees a cell struggling, the healthy cell attaches itself to the weak cell so it can become a healthy cell. They start drawing up life together.
That's the environment in which God has placed us to give our healthy cells over to those that need some assistance in order to grow and be pulled upward with us.
There's a machine called Curiosity. Curiosity has been landing on Mars. And there's a great need to prove that there is life on a planet other than earth. So Curiosity has been digging the scene on Mars for a long time, checking the environment to see if it can find life forces. Up to this point they have not found any life sources. The environment is incompetent to produce life.
If God started walking up and down the aisle and he could send some pictures to my office and say, "Let me show you what you're working with," would we have an environment that's good for growth? I think I can answer, "Yes, we have a place that's good for growth." Move from immaturity, instability, and gullibility. Get in an environment where you can grow, and let God put his thumbprint on your life and give you the spiritual DNA that you need, so you can grow up into the headship of Jesus Christ.
Ralph Douglas West serves as founder and senior pastor of The Church Without Walls (Brookhollow Baptist Church, Houston, Texas).