I’m here in Lebanon, the land of the famous cedar tree you see written about in the Bible. This tree is the emblem found on our flag and symbolizes resilience and longevity. It may grow only a couple of inches a year, but can live for thousands of years!
In 1.John 2:12-14, we see three types of people in the Body of Christ - children, young men, and fathers. For the sake of our modern thinking, we can refer to them as children, adolescents, and adults. Let’s compare these stages with those of the great cedar tree, and understand some important points about spiritual growth.
Stage 1: Downward Growth (Children)
The first stage is downward growth; roots start developing with a seed’s germination. This growth is not externally visible and does not have any visible impact on the world above ground. Also, roots do not grow in one single direction.
Likewise, in a person, when the seed of the Word starts to grow in someone, it is not necessarily visible, but it is surely working and taking root. I remember this phase of my spiritual growth. The change was slow and gradual and hardly impacted my life externally. My spiritual walk didn’t have any direction, but instead involved learning about God and the truth. It looked just like roots growing in all directions, fighting both through and around the soil.
Even though it’s not pretty, this stage is critical. Shallow and underdeveloped roots mean that external conditions can kill the tree, as we see in the parable of the sower (Mark 4:13-20).
John’s message to the children is simple — you are forgiven, and you know the Father (1.John 2:12-13). Once we know this truth and grow in it, we are set free from the darkness beneath and work our way upwards into the light! Paul says that we are rooted and grounded in the love of God (Ephesians 3:17). Through this love, truth is revealed to us.
Stage 2: Upward Growth (Adolescents)
As soon as the tree shoots out of the soil, we enter the second phase of growth. Now growth has become directional and full of determination. This growth is a fight of resilience. It is visible in the world, and can only be possible when fueled through those roots that are grounded in love and fed by the truth.
What makes the cedar tree so special? Like only a few other evergreens, the cedar tree can grow in extreme conditions and continues to grow no matter the season.
Apostle John’s message to the adolescents is — you are overcomers of the world, and you are strong; the Word of God helps you right where you are and in what He has called you to do (1.John 2:13-14). This is where I identify myself now. I am in a place where I am growing into what God has in store for me, both in His church and in my life. The change is visible in me and around me, and the direction is clear, but the obstacles are also visible; I am overcoming them by faith in Him.
Stage 3: Outward Growth (Adults)
After about a thousand years, the cedar tree stops growing upwards, and the branches mainly start to grow outwards. This is where we see stage three. Upward growth is emphasized by the development of self, whereas outward growth impacts the environment around it. When the tree grows outwards, it creates shelter in the branches and shade on the ground. Its focus is no longer itself.
Although I have seen glimpses of spiritual adulthood in my life through service to God and others, I mainly see it exemplified in my leaders. No matter what they are going through, I always see an outward focus, a selfless desire to see God’s plan fulfilled in others. This is an outward working of the love of God that we are rooted and grounded in.
Recently I recall God speaking to my heart and telling me that my pastor was, in fact, working in children’s ministry — meaning ministry to people in the children’s stage. Our spiritual stage doesn’t always correlate to the age of our bodies. Congregations can include people in all stages of spiritual growth.
John’s message to the adults is — you have known Him who is from the beginning (1 John 2:13-14). A greater revelation of our place in heaven with the Eternal One leads to a greater focus of His things accomplished in and through you.
Some final thoughts:
A greater revelation of the different growth stages helps us identify where we are and where we need to go. We cannot cut stages short, but we can fuel a more effective personal spiritual growth.
There is a great benefit in identifying where others are in their growth, as this helps us be more effective towards those we are serving. For example, adults speak to children differently than they speak to other adults. Our goal should be to do and say what will help others reach their next stage.
Finally, no matter what stage of growth you are in, none of it is possible without the love of God and remaining rooted and grounded in that love. There is no tree without its roots. John says that those who do not love do not know God” (1 John 4:8). When we love, we know God. Our ability to walk in love is the limiting factor that allows for us to grow - we can only grow up as much as our roots have grown deep into the love of God.
1 John 2:12-14 (NKJV)
12. I write to you, little children, because your sins are forgiven you for His name’s sake.
13. I write to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I write to you, young men, because you have overcome the wicked one. I write to you, little children, because you have known the Father.
14. I have written to you, fathers, because you have known Him who is from the beginning. I have written to you, young men, because you are strong, and the word of God abides in you, and you have overcome the wicked one.