Maturity the Goal of Christian Mission

The notion of maturity is variously expressed in the writings of Paul.  Nevertheless, it is clear that the apostle’s concern is to urge and enable Christians, individually and corporately, to move towards a maturity that is God’s will for them in Christ. Paul’s teaching on maturity must be understood in relation to his eschatology and viewed as the outworking of his gospel preaching.

 ‘Fulfilling’ the gospel

In Romans 15:16-21 there is an important statement by the apostle Paul about the content, goal and scope of his missionary work. The passage climaxes with a tantalizing reference to his having ‘fully proclaimed the good news of Christ’. Together with the phrase ‘the obedience of faith’ (1:5; 16:26), this suggests that, in addition to primary evangelism, Paul’s intention was to establish his converts in the way of Christian maturity.

Paul’s ‘priestly’ ministry

The apostle first describes himself as ‘a minister of Christ Jesus to the Gentiles in the priestly service of the gospel of God, so that the offering of the Gentiles may be acceptable, sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ (v. 16 NRSV). Much debate has taken place over the meaning of the phrase ‘the offering of the Gentiles’, which expresses the goal of his ‘priestly’ activity. Peter O’Brien has taken the view that the apostle presents the Gentiles to God as an offering which is acceptable because of Paul’s ministry to them and that this offering is epitomized by the material gifts brought by their representatives to meet the needs of the Jerusalem believers (15:25-32).[1] My own view is that the preceding appeal to present their bodies ‘as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship’ (12:1) must be determinative here. Paul’s gospel ministry enables the Gentiles to present themselves in a way that is acceptable to God (cf. 6:13, 16, 19). Clearly, however, the sharing of their resources with the poor among the saints in Jerusalem is an important expression of the ‘understanding worship’ that the apostle encourages and makes possible amongst the nations.[2] Paul’s ‘priestly’ ministry was the divinely appointed means of uniting Jews and Gentiles in the praise and service of God, thus fulfilling the prophetic promises regarding the End time (cf. 15:5-12). Since preaching was not regarded as a ritual activity in Paul’s world, he clearly gives that ministry a novel significance when he describes it as the means by which he serves God (cf. 1:9-15).

The expression ‘sanctified by the Holy Spirit’ stands in apposition to ‘acceptable’ and suggests that the work of the Spirit in drawing the Gentiles into relationship with God through Jesus is what actually makes them acceptable to God (cf. 1 Cor. 1:2, 30; 6:11; 2 Thes. 2:13). Paul goes on to reinforce the idea that the acceptability of the Gentiles’ self-offering to God is directly related to his preaching, by asserting that the Spirit is at work through his ministry, in what he says and does (vv. 17-19). The Spirit, who is actively present in both preacher and listener, is a necessary agent of the worship of the New Covenant because the Spirit makes possible a saving faith in Christ through the gospel. Another way of expressing the same truth is to say that Christ himself has been at work through the ministry of Paul, drawing the Gentiles into relationship with himself, winning ‘obedience from the Gentiles, by word and deed, by the power of signs and wonders, by the power of the Spirit of God’.

The obedience of faith

The assertion that Paul’s missionary endeavours were designed to bring about ‘obedience from the Gentiles’ must be related to two key texts, at the beginning and end of Romans. In 1:5 Paul makes it clear that his apostolic calling was ‘to bring about the obedience of faith among all the Gentiles’, for the sake of Christ’s name. In 16:26 ‘the obedience of faith’ functions as part of his concluding praise of God for establishing the Roman Christians in the gospel he preached. Against those who interpret the obedience of the nations quite narrowly in terms of their coming to faith in Christ, O’Brien sides with Garlington in taking it to include not only the Gentiles’ believing acceptance of the gospel but also ‘their constancy of Christian conduct’.[3] This conclusion is consistent with the whole tenor of Paul’s argument in Romans itself and with the earnest desire expressed elsewhere that his converts will be found holy and blameless, and filled with the fruit of righteousness on the day of the Lord Jesus (Phil. 1:9-11; Col. 1:9-14, 22, 28; 1 Thes. 3:12-13, etc.). So when Paul speaks in a shorthand way of ‘the obedience of the Gentiles’ (Rom. 15:18), it is likely that he has in view their conversion and the obedient lifestyle that flows from faith in Christ.

The result of Christ’s work through the apostle is such that he can say, ‘from Jerusalem and as far around as Illyricum I have fully proclaimed the good news of Christ’ (Rom. 15:19). In view of the qualification about not proclaiming the gospel where Christ had already been named (v. 20), the claim to have literally ‘fulfilled the gospel’ cannot simply be understood in geographical terms.  Paul had not preached in every town or district in the region he outlines! The verb  fulfil’ can mean  ‘doing something fully’ or ‘carrying it to completion’.[4] It is so used in Colossians 1:25, in a somewhat similar context, to refer to the divine commission to literally ‘fulfil the word of God’. We shall note in due course how this paragraph leads to a critical statement about maturity as the goal of Paul’s ministry (Col. 1:28). O’Brien notes the link between these passages and observes that the noun ‘gospel’ in Romans 15:19 (euangelion) is used in the dynamic sense of ‘the act of proclamation or the work of evangelism’,[5] with the cognate verb (euangelizomai) being used in parallel in v. 20. Paul is saying that he has ‘completed the preaching of the gospel’ in this region. But in what sense?

After a review of various alternative interpretations, O’Brien concludes that it is not simply a reference to the manner in which Paul’s mission was effected. He follows Paul Bowers in asserting that it has to do with the scope of Paul’s work:

From his practice of residential missions (at Corinth and Ephesus) and nurture of churches (1 Thess. 2:10-12), from his priorities (1 Thess. 2:17 – 3:13; 2 Cor. 2:12-13; 10:13-16), and from his description of his assignment (Col. 1:24 – 2:7; Rom. 1:1-15; 15:14-16) in relation to admonition and teaching believers to bring them to full maturity in Christ, it is clear that the nurture of emerging churches is understood by Paul to be ‘an integral feature of his missionary task’.[6]

Paul’s missionary vocation found its sense of fulfilment ‘in the presence of firmly established churches’,[7] from Jerusalem as far around as Illyricum. He had ‘fulfilled the gospel’ in strategic centres such as Thessalonica, Corinth and Ephesus. Further evangelistic work in the region remained a possibility for others to pursue, but Paul felt free to go up to Jerusalem and move on to Rome and a new sphere of operation westwards towards Spain.

Preaching to the Romans

The notion that preaching the gospel for Paul meant primary evangelism and strengthening believers in their discipleship is also suggested by the argument in Romans 1:8-15. The gospel had already done its work of creating faith in Christ (1:8) and establishing a number of congregations in Rome (16:3-16) before Paul wrote. His longstanding intention to visit them is first expressed cautiously in terms of sharing with them ‘some spiritual gift to strengthen you’ (1:11). This is then qualified to allow for the possibility that ‘we may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine’ (1:12). At the end of the paragraph, however, Paul indicates that this will happen when he comes ‘to proclaim the gospel’ (1:15, euangelisasthai) ‘to you also who are in Rome’.

Since it was his ambition to preach the gospel where Christ had not already been named, so that he did not ‘build on someone else’s foundation’ (15:20), it is natural to think that his intention was simply to preach to the unconverted in Rome and to found new churches in that city, before moving west to begin a new sphere of work (15:22-32). But the progress of the argument in the letter itself suggests something more. Paul’s intention was also to build up and strengthen the Roman Christians by his gospel ministry in their midst. O’Brien notes that where euangelizomai is used by the apostle it does not refer to preaching in a general sense but always has in view the proclamation of the euangelion, which Paul begins to expound in Romans 1:16-17. Nevertheless, the word-group is used to cover the whole range of ‘evangelistic’ work, ‘from the initial proclamation of the gospel to the building up of believers and grounding them firmly in the faith’. [8] O’Brien goes on to observe that:

The Christian life is certainly created through the gospel (1 Cor. 4:15; Col. 1:5-6); but it is also lived in the sphere of this dynamic and authoritative message (cf. Phil. 1:27). It needs therefore to be preached to those who have already received it and have become Christians. Believers do not leave the gospel behind or progress beyond it as they grow and mature in their faith. They stand fast in this kerygma and are being saved through it if they hold firmly to it (1 Cor. 15:1-2), for it is in this authoritative announcement that true hope is held out to them (Col. 1:5, 23).[9]

O’Brien further observes the wide-ranging series of activities subsumed under the notion of preaching the gospel in Ephesians 3:8 and Colossians 1:28. I want to support this argument by proposing that Paul’s intention of ministering the gospel to the Christians at Rome is anticipated in the writing of his letter to them. Romans itself is an example of how Paul would lead believers to maturity in Christ.

Romans as an exposition of Paul’s gospel

Much scholarly debate continues to take place about the nature of Romans and its purpose. Although the letter appears to be occasional from the wording of its introduction (1:1-15) and conclusion (15:14 – 16:27), and although the section about the ‘strong’ and the ‘weak’ (14:1 – 15:13) could be related to specific problems in the Roman church, the main part of the document is more like a general tractate on the gospel and its implications. Nevertheless, it is not a timeless theological treatise nor simply a compendium of Christian doctrine. The larger occasion of Romans is Paul’s missionary situation, and a variety of specific concerns also combined to produce the finished product.[10]

With regard to its controlling theme, Douglas Moo has rightly argued that we need a topic as broad as ‘the gospel’ to encompass the various materials in Romans.[11] The word ‘gospel’ and the cognate verb ‘evangelize’ are particularly prominent in the introduction and conclusion, as we have seen. ‘The gospel’ is also the key concept in 1:16-17, which is usually taken as Paul’s statement of the theme of his letter, so that even the important ideas of ‘salvation’ and ‘the righteousness of God’ are subordinate to the gospel. The claim that the gospel was ‘promised beforehand through his prophets in the holy scriptures’ (1:2) is substantiated and developed in various ways throughout the letter. The Christological focus of the gospel, which is highlighted in 1:3-4, is foundational to the argument. The soteriological dimension of the gospel mentioned in 1:16-17 forms the basis of much that follows. The purpose of the gospel, which is ‘to bring about the obedience of faith among the Gentiles for the sake of his name’ (1:5), is an implicit concern throughout the document, as the apostle applies the message of the gospel to a range of practical situations.

The teaching in this letter is conditioned by Paul’s own missionary situation and to some extent by the needs of the Christians in Rome. Yet believers throughout the ages have discerned here an understanding of God’s purposes that brings assurance of salvation, motivation for godly living, a sense of responsibility to other Christians and an awareness of being part of God’s rescue plan for the whole world. In other words, the study and application of Romans can promote a maturity in Christ that is wholistic and God-focussed, enabling believers to enjoy by way of anticipation the eschatological blessings secured for them in Christ, as they await the consummation of God’s purposes. As we shall see from Colossians 1:25-2:7, this is the measure of maturity that Paul seeks for his converts in every aspect of his ministry.

Everyone mature in Christ

In a passage that has some interesting parallels with Romans, the apostle details the strategy that he and his co-workers had for presenting ‘everyone mature in Christ’. Paul’s divine commission is first presented in terms of literally ‘fulfilling the word of God’ (Col. 1:25, NRSV ‘to make the word of God fully known’). Peter O’Brien notes the various interpretations of this clause that have been offered and argues for a parallel with Romans 15:19. The word of the gospel is ‘fulfilled’ not simply when it is preached, but when it is ‘dynamically and effectively proclaimed in the power of the Spirit . . . throughout the world, and accepted by men in faith’.[12] Since Paul had not personally visited them (2:1), the Colossians had become beneficiaries of his apostolic commission through the ministry of his associate Epaphras (1:7).

Proclaiming ‘the mystery’

The message which Paul was to ‘fulfil’ is defined as ‘the mystery that has been hidden throughout the ages and generations but has now been revealed to his saints’ (1:26; cf. Rom. 16:25-27; 1 Cor. 2:6-10; Eph. 3:4-7, 8-11). The ‘saints’ are not some select group of initiates here, but those who have heard and received the word of God through the ministry of Paul and his associates, ‘for it is in the effective preaching and teaching of the gospel that the revelation of the mystery takes place (cf. 1 Cor. 2:1, 7; 4:1; Eph. 3:8, 9; 6:19)’.[13] The Old Testament prophets looked forward to the eschatological blessing of the nations along with Israel, but the inclusion of Gentiles on equal footing with Jews in the body of Christ remained a mystery until the time of its fulfilment. Paul’s duty and joy had been the task of revealing ‘the riches of the glory of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory’ (1:27). Even though they were Gentiles, as members of Christ’s body, the Colossians had his life within them. ‘They therefore had a sure hope that they would share in that fullness of glory yet to be displayed on the day of “the revealing of the sons of God” (Rom. 8:19; cf. 5:2; Col. 3:4; 1 Thess. 2:12; 2 Thess. 1:10; 2:14).’[14] This setting of the gospel within the broad framework of biblical theology is again reminiscent of the argument of Romans.

The Christological focus of the mystery is brought out strongly in Colossians 1:28 (‘It is he whom we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone in all wisdom, so that we may present everyone mature in Christ’). Three related verbs are used in the plural – suggesting that Paul’s co-workers shared in this task – and in the present tense – suggesting that this was their habitual practice. The public proclamation or announcement (katangellomen)[15] of Christ as the centre of God’s purpose for the nations is carried out in conjunction with warning (nouthetountes)[16] and teaching (didaskontes). ‘Clearly for Paul and his colleagues evangelistic and missionary outreach was not effected by some superficial presentation of the saving message about Christ to the world, but rather it was prosecuted through warning and intensive teaching in pastoral situations.’[17] Moreover, in contrast with the gnostic practice of sharing esoteric knowledge with exclusive groups of initiates, the Christian gospel was to be explained to everyone individually (‘every person’ occurs three times in in 1:28) and ‘in all wisdom’.

Three allied modes of communication are thus shown to be necessary to ‘fulfil the word of God’ and to ‘present everyone mature in Christ’: announcing the good news about Jesus, teaching about its scriptural foundations and deepest implications, and urging people to make the proper response. Acts 20:20-31 illustrates how these activities were combined in the apostle’s extensive ministry in Ephesus. In various situations, the balance between them may vary, but any one of these modes of Christian communication is inadequate without the others. For example, warning without teaching and the framework of gospel proclamation may be nothing more than moralising. Teaching without warning and gospel proclamation may simply be intellectualising.

Maturity defined

The goal of this Christ-centred pattern of proclamation-warning-teaching is ‘so that we may present everyone mature in Christ’. Here the work of ‘presenting’ is clearly that of Paul and his associates, whereas in 1:22 it is Christ himself who, through his reconciling death, is able ‘to present you holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’.[18] A comparison between these passages is instructive. The verb ‘to present’ is probably used in a judicial sense in both contexts, to refer to the final appearance ‘before him’ (1:22; cf. 1 Cor. 1:8, ‘on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ’). ‘As men and women who are forgiven and reconciled they are declared blameless (cf. Rom. 8:33, 34), without fault or stain (the terms “holy” and “blameless” appear to have lost any cultic overtones at Eph. 1:4; 5:27; Phil. 2:15; Jude 24) on the occasion of the Great Assize.’[19] This is the hope of those who believe that God has ‘rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins’ (1:13-14). What will finally be declared on the day of judgement can be enjoyed by way of anticipation by those who trust in Christ’s saving work.

However, the lengthy conditional sentence in Colossians 1:23 makes it clear that continuance in this confidence is the test of reality. The reconciliation has been achieved and its benefits are available to all who believe the promises of the gospel now. But the challenge is to ‘continue securely established and steadfast in the faith, without shifting from the hope promised by the gospel that you heard’. Those who are drawn away from the apostolic gospel lose the hope of ultimate acceptance that it offers. The ministry of proclamation-warning-teaching described in 1:28 is the fundamental means by which God sustains his people in that saving faith.

The word teleios is variously used in Greek literature and could be translated ‘whole’, ‘complete’, ‘mature’ or ‘perfect’. In sacrificial contexts it denotes the quality of victims that are entire and without blemish (e.g. Homer, Iliad 1,66; Exod. 12:5 LXX) and such overtones have been suggested in Colossians 1:28.[20] However, the terminology is much more commonly employed in the formal sense of ‘full’, ‘complete’ or ‘perfect’, in a great variety of religious, philosophical and everyday applications.[21] In the LXX there is a particular use in the sense of ‘blamelessness’ or ‘wholeheartedness’ in relation to God (e.g. Gen. 6:9; Deut 18:13; 2 Sam. 22:26).[22] The Old Testament also refers to the heart that is wholly turned to God as ‘perfect’ (cf. 1 Ki. 8:61; 11:4).

This Hebraic perspective on perfection may well have been in Paul’s mind, since he writes of ‘walking’ worthily of the Lord, so as to please him in every way (Col. 1:10). The participial clauses which follow in the Greek text spell out more precisely what this Christian ‘walk’ involves: ‘bearing fruit in every good work’ (v. 10), ‘growing in the knowledge of God’ (v. 10), ‘being strengthened with all the strength that comes from his glorious power for all endurance and longsuffering’ (v. 11), and ‘giving thanks with joy’ (v. 12) for all the benefits of the gospel.

Paul picks up the note of ‘walking’ again in Colossians 2:6-7, where he urges, ‘As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to lead your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving’. The ‘perfect’ or ‘complete’ Christian will be the one whom God enables to persevere in this Christ-centred, gospel-based lifestyle, firm to the end. The apostle prays for his converts to be mature in this sense (1:10-12) and makes it the goal of his proclamation, warning and teaching (1:28 – 2:7). The image is not one of sinlessness, but of blamelessness, steadfastness, fruitfulness and thankfulness.

P. J. Du Plessis insists that perfection in Colossians 1:28 means ‘the absolute redemption which is in Christ’.[23] This verse certainly parallels 1:22 in some respects, as I have noted, and Du Plessis is right to conclude that ‘redemption is effective from the moment of faith, although it is a dynamic category extending from the archē to the telos.[24] But he has missed the balance of Paul’s argument here because he is so intent on avoiding the interpretation of teleios in terms of Christian spiritual growth. The prospect of being presented ‘holy and blameless and irreproachable before him’ because of Christ’s redemptive work (1:22) is meant to be the motivation for the walk of faith and obedience in the present (1:23). This God-given hope brings forth expressions of a holy, blameless and irreproachable lifestyle in advance of that ultimate encounter with Christ (1:3-5), even in the lives of those who are pressured by false teaching and every temptation to sin (2:1 – 4:6). What is implied by teleios in the context of 1:28 is not some vague notion of ‘spiritual growth’ or ‘moral progress’ but actualisation of the redemption in Christ in personal and corporate Christian living.[25] Paul’s idea of maturity or perfection is to be understood in the light of his inaugurated eschatology.

Mature and immature

This last point is argued by W. W. Klein in terms of a two-stage view of perfection in the writings of Paul. There is ‘a relative kind of perfection that Christians work to attain in this life, and a final state of absolute sinless perfection realized only in the life to come’.[26] However, in Delling’s words, ‘one does not find in the NT any understanding of the adjective in terms of a gradual advance of the Christian to moral perfection nor in terms of a two-graded ideal of ethical perfection.’[27] What Klein means is that Paul already regards those who are in Christ as teleioi (e.g. 1 Cor. 2:6-13), even if they behave as ‘infants’ in Christ (1 Cor. 3:1-3). Paul’s concern in 1 Corinthians is to persuade them to adopt the thinking and behaviour that goes along with being ‘mature’ (cf. 14:20).[28] The perfection that Christians are to ‘work to attain in this life’ is an actualisation of the true status and life that is already theirs in Christ.

In Romans 12:2 the apostle urges his readers not to be conformed to this ‘age’ and its values but to ‘be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God – what is good and acceptable and perfect’. The mind must be renewed if it is to recognise and embrace the will of God, which is ‘perfect, complete, absolute; for he claims us wholly for himself and for our neighbours’.[29] Key aspects of the lifestyle that is required of all who are in Christ are then detailed in Romans 12-15.

In Colossians 4:12 there are important links with verses that have been considered already. Just as Paul ‘struggles’ (1:29) to ‘present everyone mature in Christ’ (1:28, teleion), so Epaphras ‘struggles’ (4:12) in his prayers for his converts, ‘so that you may stand mature and fully assured in everything that God wills’. The passive stathēte points to the divine enabling that can make such stability possible (cf. Rom. 14:4). The whole expression implies that they are already teleioi and need to be kept that way, not that they need to ‘make progress here and now’.[30] In particular, the Colossians have been warned about seeking perfection or maturity through the philosophy of the false teachers (2:8-23), which involved ascetic practices, visionary experiences and special revelations, rather than through Christ. To seek perfection elsewhere is to lose the possibility of actualising the perfection that is ours in Christ.

The maturity or perfection that is in Christ is defined in a particular way in Colossians 4:12 by the expression, ‘fully assured in everything that God wills’ (NRSV). Peter O’Brien argues that the participle peplērophorēmenoi takes the place of the more frequently used synonym plēroō (‘fill’, ‘fulfill’). It is deliberately reminiscent of the teaching on ‘fullness’ (plērōma) that runs through the heresy as well as through Paul’s corrective.

Accordingly, the prayer addressed to God recalls the polemic against the ‘philosophy’. Christ is the one in whom the whole fullness of the Godhead dwells bodily (2:9). Only in him is fullness to be found. And the readers have been filled in Christ (2:10). Paul’s co-worker now prays that they will stand firmly as ‘perfect’, an eschatological perfection that occurs when they are ‘filled with everything that is God’s will’.[31]

The corporate dimension

In many passages Paul shows his concern for the corporate life of believers and in Colossians 3:14 he indicates that the perfection he sets before them is not something narrowly individual. In addition to the graces listed in verses 12-13, the apostle urges the Colossians to clothe themselves with love, which he literally describes as ‘the bond of perfection’. Some have taken this expression to mean that love is the ‘perfect bond’ that joins all the other virtues to form an organic unity.[32] But O’Brien disputes the use of extra-biblical parallels in this argument and challenges the suggestion that there was a hierarchy of virtues for Paul, with love at the top. He follows those who read the genitive as one of purpose or result, meaning that love is ‘the bond that leads to perfection’ or ‘the bond which produces perfection’.[33] This suggests a deliberate verbal link with the perfection/maturity Paul sets before them in 1:28 and 4:12. The new idea is that perfection/maturity is attained or actualized only as Christians in fellowship show love to one another. This perspective is amplified in Ephesians 4:11-16, as we shall see.

Keeping the end in view

Perfection in the Age to Come

In Philippians 3 the apostle makes no explicit statement about maturity being the goal of his missionary endeavours. Nevertheless, as he warns that the final perfecting will come when we share in the resurrection from the dead, Paul puts himself forward as a model of Christian maturity and urges his readers to imitate him in thinking and behaviour. Whatever others may claim, the apostle affirms that he has not yet reached perfection (v. 12). Instead, he keeps on pursuing his long-cherished ambition of knowing Christ fully and thus finally attaining to the resurrection from the dead (vv. 8-11). He keeps on pursuing this ambition ‘with the intention of laying hold of it, because the risen Christ powerfully laid hold on him on the Damascus road, setting his life in this new direction’.[34]

Although there are eight uses of the adjective teleios in the generally acknowledged Pauline epistles (Rom. 12:2; 1Cor. 2:6; 13:10; 14:20; Eph. 4:13; Phil. 3:15; Col. 1:28; 4:12), Philippians 3:12 is the only verse where the derivative verb teleioō is found (teleō and its compounds occur in Paul’s writings quite often). Most commentators agree that this signifies a taking over of the terminology of his opponents for the purpose of correcting their false views. Peter O’Brien rightly observes that the verb is used in parallel with the preceding expression ‘not that I have already obtained (this)’. Since it can mean ‘complete, bring to an end, finish, accomplish; bring something to its goal or accomplishment’, it is ‘a further explanation in more literal terms of what was described figuratively of obtaining the goal’ in the preceding passage.[35] He reviews various theories about Paul’s opponents and their teaching and concludes that they were Jewish-Christian Judaizers, who were propounding ‘a doctrine of obtainable perfection based on Judaizing practices’.[36] Although he takes issue with Helmut Koester’s position, he agrees that Paul’s opponents were claiming to have reached a state of perfection defined in terms of ‘the possession of the qualities of salvation in their entirety, the arrival of heaven itself’.[37] Paul is opposed to such over-realized eschatology and any suggestion that the ultimate blessedness can be obtained in the present.

That perfection here refers to eschatological consummation is confirmed by the following verses. Paul does not rest secure in his present experience, imagining that he has already laid hold of all that Christ offers, but constantly sets his sight on ‘what lies ahead’ (v. 13). ‘He will not allow either the achievements of the past (which God has wrought) or, for that matter, his failures as a Christian to prevent his gaze from being fixed firmly on the finish line. In this sense he forgets as he runs.’[38] Like an athlete in a race he presses on towards the goal, which in this case is ‘the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ (v. 14). According to this imagery, he runs with the divine calling to salvation ringing in his ears, ‘as God summons Paul and other Christians in a heavenward direction and to holiness of life’.[39] The apostle has already indicated that this involves a willingness to share in Christ’s sufferings ‘by becoming like him in his death’ (v. 10). In view of his attack on self-indulgence and lawlessness in vv. 17-19, it is certain that pressing on towards the goal (v. 14) and holding fast to ‘what we have attained’ (v. 16) involves a moral responsibility to Christ. Yet perfection here is not essentially a moral concept or something that depends on human effort: ‘perfection lies in the hands of God, who will bring to completion that which he has begun in calling me “in Christ Jesus”’.[40]

Maturity in the present

In Philippians 3:15-16 Paul urges as many of his readers as are ‘mature’ to follow his example (vv. 12-14). Commentators have often taken Paul’s use of teleioi here as ironic, since he has just said that he is ‘not yet perfected’ (v.12). The apostle is arguing that those who regard themselves as having already received the fullness of eschatological blessing in Christ should seek perfection in humbly acknowledging their imperfection! However, O’Brien argues at some length against this line of interpretation. Firstly, the adjective teleios does not have to carry a meaning strictly analogous with the cognate verb in v. 12. Secondly, since Paul includes himself amongst the teleioi by his use of the verb ‘be of the same mind’ (v. 15), a change of meaning from v. 12 is required anyway. Thirdly, Paul normally uses the relative pronoun hosoi (‘those of us’, v. 14 NRSV) inclusively, rather than partitively, so as to refer to all (potentially, at least) those addressed (e.g. Rom. 6:3; 8:14; 2 Cor. 1:20; Gal. 3:27; 6:16). Fourthly, the apostle employs teleioi elsewhere of those who are actually or potentially mature in the Christian life, as we have seen. Fifthly, teleioi does not appear to be used ironically elsewhere in Paul or the rest of the NT. Finally, the ironical interpretation makes assumptions about the epistolary situation at Philippi that, though possible, are not certain.[41]

In short, Paul is not speaking ironically but sincerely. He includes himself among ‘the mature’ in much the same way as in Romans 15:1, where he associates himself with ‘the strong’. But Philippians 3:15 does not assert that every believer at Philippi is mature. With such rhetoric, ‘Paul is skilfully seeking to draw all his readers into this group, so that each will identify with the description, for he wishes each of them to be mature and therefore to be characterized by the same Christ-centred ambition he has’.[42] In connection with Colossians 1:28 and 4:12 I argued that maturity involves actualisation of the redemption in Christ in personal and corporate Christian living, so that Paul’s teaching has to be understood in the light of his inaugurated eschatology. In Philippians 3:15, however, maturity involves forgetting what lies behind and pressing on so as to lay hold of the final prize offered to us in the gospel! An over-realized eschatology undermines Christian maturity as much as any spirituality which denies that fullness of life is to be found in the crucified and exalted Christ. The context of each letter draws forth a slightly different response from the apostle on the same topic. Christian maturity involves right thinking about, and an appropriate response to, the balance of New Testament teaching concerning the enjoyment of end-time blessings in Christ.

It is difficult for many in our experiential age to accept that maturity is so bound up with divinely guided thinking, and that this is nurtured by the sort of proclamation, warning and teaching in which the apostle engaged. But we have seen this to be the case in several passages. Paul goes on to say, ‘and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you’ (Phil. 3:15). [43] He is clearly concerned that his readers have the right attitude of mind, even though he knows that everyone may not agree with him on every point. It is the general framework of his thinking that he presses upon them. At the same time, he urges them forward in the sort of behaviour that is consistent with this thinking: ‘only let us live up to (stoichein) what we have attained’ (v. 16). The Greek verb here probably derived from stoichos (originally a military term for a ‘row’) and initially meant ‘to stand in line, march in line’.[44] In the New Testament it is used figuratively to mean ‘to be in line with, stand beside, hold to, agree with, follow’ (Acts 21:24; Rom. 4:12; Gal. 5:25; 6:16). If the connotation of marching in step is present in Philippians 3:16, the readers are being urged to move forward together. But certainly a progression from attitude or orientation (phronein, v. 15) to practice is intended. This is reinforced by the use of peripatein (‘to walk, live’) in the following verse, where the challenge is to be imitators of Paul in the lifestyle that reflects the attitude he has been outlining.[45]

Meeting Christ

The notion of moving forward together towards maturity has been suggested in several contexts. It is made explicit in Ephesians 4, following another important statement about Paul’s missionary calling and God’s ultimate purposes. In Ephesians 3:1-13, the apostle shows once more how his apostolic commission was tied up with the revelation of the divine ‘mystery’ (cf. Col. 1:25-27). As he engaged in preaching to the Gentiles ‘the boundless riches of Christ’ (v. 8), he was also charged with making everyone see ‘what is the plan of the mystery hidden for ages in God who created all things’ (v. 9). The way in which Jews and Gentiles would be incorporated together in the body of Christ was revealed ‘to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit’ (v. 5-6) and it was Paul’s privilege to make known the profound implications of that ‘mystery’, even as his preaching made it a reality! Moreover, God’s grand design was that ‘through the church the wisdom of God in its rich variety might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places’ (v. 10).

Paul saw that, by its very existence as a multi-racial community united in Christ, the church could be the manifestation of God’s ‘open secret’ in all its wisdom, the unmistakable testimony to his reconciling work in Christ (cf. 2:11-22).[46] But the prayer that follows suggests ‘that if the Church is going to become in history an effective preview of God’s purposes for the end of history, then God is going to have to help it in a big way’.[47] The apostle prays for his readers to be empowered by God’s Spirit and indwelt by Christ so that, being rooted and grounded in love, ‘together with all the saints’ they might grasp God’s revelation in its ‘breadth and length and height and depth’, and ‘know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge’, so that they might be ‘filled with all the knowledge of God’ (vv. 14-19). As in Philippians 3:12-16, there is a challenge to seek an ever-deepening knowledge of God in Christ and to experience more fully the benefits of his saving work (cf. Eph. 1:17-19). After the doxology, which seeks for glory to be given to God ‘in the church and in Christ Jesus’ (Eph. 4:20-1), Paul goes straight on to exhort his readers to lead a life worthy of the calling to which they have been called, challenging them to remove every obstacle to the expression of unity in the church (4:1-6).

Within the unity of Christ’s body, however, there is a diversity of gifts from the risen Christ (4:7-11), designed to ‘equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ’ (4:12-13). The gifts in this context turn out to be people whose ministries involve some form of proclamation and teaching (v. 11). Apostles and prophets have already been identified as foundational figures for the building of Christ’s church (2:20-22). When they are listed together with evangelists and pastor-teachers, the impression is given that ‘building’ (v. 12) the body of Christ involves both growth in size through evangelism and growth to maturity through teaching and the exercise of love.[48] Although it has been disputed, the best reading of Ephesians 4:12 sees a movement from the specific work of Christian leaders, ‘for the equipment of the saints’, to that of the whole church: ‘for the work of ministry’; ‘for building up the body of Christ’.[49]

This pattern of ministry is to continue ‘until’ (mechri) the goals outlined in 4:13 have been reached. These, however, are not distinct goals. Each of the three prepositional phrases beginning with eis refers to Christ and must be seen as drawing out different aspects of God’s ultimate purpose for the church in relation to Christ. ‘Unity of the faith’ and ‘knowledge of the Son of God’ have already been described as God’s gift to the church, but they are still to be appropriated fully. The church has already been described as one new ‘person’ in Christ (2:15) and yet God’s people collectively must be brought to or become ‘the mature/perfect man’ (eis andra teleion, 4:13). In Colossians 1:28 the focus was on presenting each individual believer ‘mature in Christ’, but here it is on the church as a unified entity reaching the goal of maturity. The singular expression teleiios anēr indicates something of the extraordinary relationship between the church and the person of Christ, ‘who makes his people participants in his perfection and riches’.[50] Putting it another way, the church is ‘to attain to what in principle it already has in him – maturity and completeness’.[51]

The third expression in 4:13 speaks of attaining ‘the measure of the full stature of Christ’. It picks up language from the statement in 1:23 about the church being ‘his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all’, and from the prayer in 3:19 about being ‘filled with all the fullness of God’. There is clearly an eschatological tension here between what is already fact and what is yet to be attained. ‘The Church is the dwelling place of Christ’s attributes and powers and yet must seek more and more to give room for those very attributes and powers to dwell in it.’[52] But the question remains as to when and how the relationship between Christ and his church is consummated.

Even as mutual ministry takes place in love here and now (vv. 14-16), we may no longer be ‘children’ (v. 14) but, by implication, mature. Nevertheless, the language of v. 13 suggests that a more distant and ultimate attainment of maturity is also in view. The verb katantaō means literally ‘to come down to a meeting’, but normally simply ‘to reach a goal’.[53] Since each of the three prepositional phrases in the verse points in some way to the person of Christ, it seems reasonable to suggest that a meeting with Christ at his parousia is implied, when all that is his finally becomes the possession and experience of his people.[54] If this is so, Ephesians 4:13 is conveying in different terms the expectation of glorification or complete conformity to the likeness of Christ found elsewhere in the New Testament (e.g. Rom. 8:29-30; 2 Cor. 3:18; 1 John 3:2).


The various passages examined suggest that maturity was a goal of Paul’s mission at two different levels. On the one hand, he was concerned that his converts realize and express the maturity that was potentially already theirs in Christ. On the other hand, he was concerned to move them forwards towards the ultimate encounter with Christ, when the perfection of Christ himself would be fully experienced by his people together. To achieve his goal, the apostle gave himself wholeheartedly to a ministry of proclamation, warning and teaching that included the writing of his epistles. As he unfolded God’s total plan of salvation, he showed Christians how to live appropriately in the light of what is already fact and what is yet to be attained in Christ. Part of his strategy was to establish a pattern of ministry in the churches that would in many respects duplicate his own, enabling God’s people to promote ‘the body’s growth in building itself up in love’ (Eph. 4:16) and to move together towards God’s ultimate goal for them in Christ.[55]

[1] P. T. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission in the Writings of Paul: An exegetical and theological analysis (Carlisle: Paternoster; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1995), originally published as Consumed by Passion: Paul and the Dynamic of the Gospel, (Homebush West, NSW: Lancer, 1993), 50-51. The original version of my article was written to honour my colleague and friend Peter O’Brien and was published in P. Bolt and M. Thompson (ed.), The Gospel to the Nations: Perspectives on Paul’s Mission (Leicester: Apollos, 2000), 185-204.

[2] Cf. D. G. Peterson, Engaging with God A biblical theology of worship (Leicester: Apollos; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1992), 173-182.

[3] O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 33, citing D. B. Garlington, ‘The Obedience of Faith in the Letter to the Romans. Part I: The meaning of hypakoē pisteōs (Rom. 1:5; 16:26)’, WTJ 52 (1990), 222. Although many commentators regard faith and obedience as equivalents in Romans, Garlington and O’Brien insist that there is a distinction. The best rendering of hypakoē pisteōs ‘faith’s obedience’ or ‘believing obedience’ (O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 59). The reference is to ‘an obedience which consists in faith and an obedience which finds its source in faith’ (Garlington, ‘The Obedience of Faith’, 224). Cf. D. J. Moo, The Wycliffe Exegetical Commentary Romans 1-8 (Chicago: Moody, 1991), 44-45.

[4] BAGD, 670-672, and cf. G. Delling, TDNT 6, 286-298.

[5] O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 39, 113-114; ‘Thanksgiving and the Gospel in Paul’, NTS 21 (1974-5), 144-155.

[6] O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 42, citing W. P. Bowers, ‘Fulfilling the Gospel: The Scope of the Pauline Mission’, JETS  30 (1987), 185-198 (197).

[7] Bowers, ‘Fulfilling the Gospel’, 198.

[8] O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 62-3.

[9] O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 63

[10] Moo (Romans 1-8, 16-22) provides a convenient assessment of various theories about the purpose of Romans before arguing his own case. Cf. K. P. Donfried (ed.), The Romans Debate (rev. & exp. edition, Edinburgh: Clark; Peabody: Hendrickson, 1991), for a series of helpful essays on the subject.

[11] Moo, Romans 1-8, 28.

[12] P. T. O’Brien, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 44 Colossians, Philemon (Waco: Word, 1982), 83. J. D. G. Dunn (The Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon, NIGTC [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans; Carlisle: Paternoster, 1996], 119 note 17) argues that ‘this interpretation ignores the apocalyptic eschatological context’. Paul’s commission as apostle to the Gentiles was intended as ‘a decisive factor in completing the inbringing of the Gentiles and so facilitating the final climax of God’s purpose.’ O’Brien’s exposition of Rom. 15:19 and Col. 1:25 does not ignore this aspect of the context in both cases but suggests that the peculiar use of plērōsai points to the way in which Paul actually achieves this eschatological goal.

[13] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 85.

[14]. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 87.

[15] Cf. 1 Cor. 2:1; 9:14. The verb katangellō is used outside the NT for solemn proclamations or announcements relating to religious or political events (J. Schniewind, TDNT 1, 70-71). In Col. 1:28 it describes ‘not simply the initial apostolic announcement, but draws attention to the ongoing and systematic presentation of Christ as Lord as well’ (O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 64).

[16] Nouqete,w is not a direct synonym of dida,skw, though it is often linked with it. The verb means ‘to impart understanding (a mind for something)’, ‘to set right’, ‘to have a corrective influence on someone’, describing an effect on the will and disposition, as well as on the mind (J. Behm, TDNT 4, 1019-1020). Paul saw it as an important ministry to be exercised by believers to one another (Rom. 15:14; Col. 3:16; 1 Thes. 5:12, 14; 2 Thess. 3:15). Cf. A. J. Malherbe, ‘“Pastoral Care” in the Thessalonian Church’, NTS 36 (1990), 375-91 (especially 383-4).

[17] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 88. Against F. Hahn, Mission in the New Testament, (tr.) F. Clarke (London: SCM, 1965; American edition SBT 47; Naperville: Allenson, Il., 1965), 146, O’Brien argues that it is unnecessary to see here a sharp dichotomy between evangelistic and church proclamation.

[18] The eschatological dimension to this presentation before God is especially clear in Rom. 14:10; 2 Cor. 4:14; 11:2; Eph. 5:27.

[19] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 69. Contra J. B. Lightfoot, St Paul’s Epistles to the Colossians and to Philemon (2nd ed. London: MacMillan, 1876),163, who argues that God is regarded here ‘not as the judge who tries the accused, but as the mōmoskopos who examines the victims’ put forward for sacrifice in the present. Cf. also note 23 below.

[20] Dunn, Colossians, 125, based on the argument that similar imagery is used in 1:22. Against this view, cf. O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 68-9, 89.

[21] Cf. G. Delling, TDNT 8, 67-72; P. J. Du Plessis, TELEIOS The Idea of Perfection in the New Testament (Kampen: Kok, 1959), 73-118.

[22] In the Qumran writings, ‘the perfect’ are those who keep God’s law wholly, as interpreted by the community, and so walk perfectly in God’s ways (e.g. 1 QS 1:8; 2:2; 3:8-11). Cf. G. Delling, TDNT 8, 72-3; Du Plessis, Perfection, 94-115.

[23] Du Plessis, Perfection, 199 (emphasis removed). His argument is forced when he proposes that parastēsōmen is an ingressive aorist (‘because there is an initial moment where faith incepts’), and concludes that the durative participles that follow ‘are concerned with subsistent endeavour and not the act of submission’.

[24] Du Plessis, Perfection, 200.

[25] G. Delling (TDNT 8, 76) writes of the ‘complete’, ‘full-grown’ or ‘whole’ man in Col. 1:28, who lives in the power of, and under the direction of, Christ and his cross and resurrection. On the notion of progress in Paul’s thinking, cf. G. T. Montague, Growth in Christ  A Study in Saint Paul’s Theology of Progress (Fribourg: St Paul’s, 1961).

[26] W. W. Klein, ‘Perfect, Mature’, Dictionary of Paul and his Letters, (ed.) G. F. Hawthorne & R. P. Martin (Leicester/Downers Grove: InterVarsity, 1993), 699-701 (700).

[27] G. Delling, TDNT 8, 77.

[28] Cf. G. D. Fee, The First Epistle to the Corinthians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987), 98-103

[29] C. E. B. Cranfield, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on the Epistle to the Romans, Volume II (Edinburgh: Clark, 1979), 610-11 (capitalisation removed).

[30] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 254.

[31] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 254. Dunn (Colossians, 281) takes the verb to mean ‘fully assured’ and argues that the prayer is for ‘an emotional depth and balance to their faith’ and that it should ‘express itself in daily conduct where doing the will of God was the primary objective and yardstick’.

[32] Cf. Dunn, Colossians, 232; F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians, NICNT (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans , 1984), 155-6.

[33] O’Brien, Colossians, Philemon, 204. Cf. Du Plessis, Perfection, 200-202.

[34] P. T. O’Brien, The Epistle to the Philippians A Commentary on the Greek Text, NIGTC (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1991), 422, drawing attention to the double use of katalamba,nw in Phil. 3:12.

[35] O’Brien, Philippians, 423.

[36] O’Brien, Philippians, 26-35 (34). G. F. Hawthorne (Word Biblical Commentary Volume 43 Philippians [Waco: Word, 1983], 155) disengages vv. 12-16 from the earlier part of the chapter when he proposes that no polemic against false teachers is involved in Paul’s gentle exhortation here: ‘some of his friends at Philippi misunderstood his teaching about justification by faith alone, and as a consequence believed that they had “arrived” and had ceased from that moral striving so characteristic of and essential to the Christian life’.

[37] H. Koester, ‘The Purpose of the Polemic of a Pauline Fragment’, NTS 8 (1961-62), 317-332 (322). A brief critique of Koester is provided in O’Brien, Philippians, 29-30.  Cf. also D. G. Peterson, Hebrews and Perfection  An examination of the concept of perfection in the ‘Epistle to the Hebrews’, SNTSMS 47 (Cambridge: Cambridge University, 1982), 37-40.

[38] O’Brien, Philippians, 429. Hawthorne (Philippians, 153) observes how the language in 3:13 pictures ‘the ceaseless personal exertion, the intensity of the desire of the Christian participant in the contest if he is to achieve the hoped for goal, namely the full and complete understanding of the Savior’.

[39] O’Brien (Philippians, 432-3) takes the ‘prize’ to be ‘the full and complete gaining of Christ for whose sake everything else has been counted loss’. ‘The heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus’ is the divine calling to salvation, ‘particularly the initial summons’.

[40] V. C. Pfitzner, Paul and the Agon Motif (Leiden: Brill, 1967), 150. Pfitzner seeks to show that the perfection which is the goal of Paul’s striving ‘dare not be reduced to moral perfection, but must rather be understood as the culminating point of his apostolic ministry and his life “in Christ”’ (139). However, Pfitzner exaggerates the extent to which Paul is countering an attack on his own apostolicity in this chapter.

[41] O’Brien, Philippians, 435-6. I have found this a persuasive challenge to the position I briefly outlined myself in Hebrews and Perfection, 40. The ironical view is propounded by Hawthorne, Philippians, 156, and others noted by O’Brien, Philippians, 435 note 89.

[42] O’Brien, Philippians, 437.

[43] O’Brien (Philippians, 438-440) argues that apokalypsei here refers to a revealing in personal experience (cf. Matt. 16:17; Gal. 1:16; 1 Cor. 2:10). ‘Nothing is said about the manner in which this divine disclosure would come to them; it may have occurred in a quiet way as they reflected on the contents of the apostle’s letter. But whatever the means, such a growth in spiritual understanding would be due to a divine disclosure, that is, it would be purely of grace.’ Cf. Paul’s prayer in Eph. 1:17-18.

[44] Cf. G. Delling, TDNT 7, 66-9; H. –H. Esser, NIDNTT 2, 451-3.

[45] Cf. P. T. O’Brien, ‘The Gospel and Godly Models in Philippians’, in Worship, Theology and Ministry in the Early Church. Essays in Honor of Professor Ralph Martin, (ed.) M. J. Wilkins & T. Paige (Sheffield: Academic, 1992), 273-284.

[46] Cf. O’Brien, Gospel and Mission, 18-19. Unfortunately, at the time of writing this article, Peter O’Brien’s commentary on Ephesians had not yet been published and I was not able to draw on his exegetical insights.

[47] A. T. Lincoln, Word Biblical Commentary Volume 42 Ephesians (Dallas: Word, 1990), 218. Lincoln himself believes that the author of Ephesians was a later follower of Paul writing in his name (lx-lxxiii). I am not persuaded by his arguments, but this is not the place to debate such a complex issue.

[48] The process by which growth to maturity takes place by mutual ministry within the body of Christ is set out in Eph. 4:14-16. Cf. Peterson, Engaging with God, 206-211.

[49] Against Lincoln, Ephesians, 253-5, cf. E. Best, A Critical and Exegetical Commentary on Ephesians, ICC (Edinburgh: Clark, 1998), 395-9; Montague, Growth in Christ, 150-1.

[50] M. Barth, Ephesians. Translation and Commentary on Chapters 4-6, AB 34A (Garden City, New York: Doubleday, 1974), 487. Cf. Montague, Growth in Christ, 153.

[51] Lincoln, Ephesians, 256. This makes better sense than simply identifying the mature or perfect man with ‘the corporate man . . . who is the church’ (Best, Ephesians, 402).

[52] E. Best, One Body in Christ (London: SPCK, 1955), 141 note 2. Best, Ephesians, 402, says the goal to be attained is ‘the measure, probably as in v. 7, the full measure, of the maturity or stature of what Christ fills’. Montague, Growth in Christ, 154, writes of the church attaining ‘to the mature proportions that befit Christ’s complement’.

[53] Cf. O. Michel, TDNT 3, 623-5. The verb can describe a literal journey (e.g. Acts 16:1; 18:19; 21:7) or a spiritual attainment as here (cf. Acts 26:7; Phil. 3:11).

[54] Barth, Ephesians, 485-7, pushes the imagery too far and has the church meeting Christ as ‘the Bridegroom’. But Lincoln, Ephesians, 255, and Best, Ephesians, 399, are too quick to dismiss the idea of an ultimate encounter with Christ because of Barth’s exaggerated development of the imagery. The church cannot reach its final state of perfection without a transforming encounter with the glorified Christ.


One thought on “Maturity the Goal of Christian Mission

  1. Hagop

    Dear Dr. Peterson,

    This was such a helpful article. Thank you, not only for this article, but for the whole site! I will be reading your book Engaging with God for a class on worship in the fall – I look forward to it. I noticed you had Eph. 4:20-21, but I think it might be Eph. 3:20-21. It is the second paragraph under the heading, Meeting Christ. Thanks again for this article it very balanced.

    Yours in Christ,

    Hagop T


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