What Does It Mean to Be Spiritually Mature?

In a nutshell: we must go deeper in every area of our lives.
What Does It Mean to Be Spiritually Mature?

Recently I have been drawn to the word deep as a descriptor when I speak of mature Christians. My earliest appreciation for the term came when I read a comment by Richard Foster, "The desperate need today is not for a greater number of intelligent people, or gifted people, but for deep people."

What does it mean to be a deep Christ-follower today when the unlimited options, noisy distractions, and million versions of truth swamp our soul? How is it possible to be a deep person while being swept up in community, school, and church events, shopping, networking, laundering, family-building, and a 50-60 hour work week?

Of course we can't attempt to answer these questions until we explore what deep people look like. Here's my working description: Deep people are those whose lives are organized around Jesus, his character, his call to serve, and his death on the cross for their sins. Their abilities or giftedness may be quite diverse, but each has the power to influence others to follow Jesus, grow in Christ-likeness, and live a life of faithful service. They love the world, mix well with people, and are wary of spiritual entrapments. They are known for their wisdom, their compassion for others, and their perseverance in hard times.

How Important Is Depth?

Deep people don’t just happen; they are cultivated and become a treasure greater than a church's pastor, programs, or worship band.

So where do we find a model of forming deep people? The best example is Jesus.

Most of Jesus' public ministry was invested in a small number of men and women. Under his mentorship, they morphed into deep people and set in motion a movement that continues to this day. This mentoring activity was Jesus at his best—his sweet spot.

He didn’t do it as many do it today. He didn’t form a circle and fill in the blanks of a Bible study booklet. He didn’t passively recite monologues of vague lessons. And he didn’t hold a series of Tuesday evening meetings and show videos of inspirational speakers. Like most rabbis of his time, Jesus did teach.

Jesus cultivated deep people in the traditional way of the rabbis—a way considerably different from ours. He used storytelling, questions and answers, and argument. Jesus cared about what his 12 disciples were going to be and do. He was less a preacher and more a cultivator-coach to those disciples he'd chosen. What he did with them and how he did it, I call the genius of the rabbinical contract. Rabbis, like parents, always had their eyes on the future. Who would carry on their teaching? Jesus’ mission was to redeem and reframe the lives of those who would extend this mission after he was gone.

Jesus approached discipleship, however, very differently from many of the rabbis of his time. Rabbis would often vet their students to carefully make sure they were the most influential, the most brilliant, and known for their righteousness. The accounts of how Jesus recruited his disciples show the opposite. Jesus spent time on the boat with Peter and other fishermen, Peter told him, "Go away from me, Lord; I am a sinful man!" (Luke 5:8). Jesus responded, “Don’t be afraid; from now on you will fish for people." (Luke 5:10). Peter couldn’t visualize himself as a disciple. Too much of a past, he may have reasoned; too many character defects; too many other ambitions. He saw no way he could be what Jesus' rabbinical contract would require. But Jesus broke through Peter's resistance and drew him away from his trade into a life of learning and serving.

In telling us this story, the gospel writers seem to assume that we, the readers, are conversant with the drama of the disciple-picking event. They seem to assume we know this leaving of the nets was no instant decision, but that it had been discussed, proposed, pondered. And now the thinking became actionable. Peter and the others enter the rabbinical contract.

In the times that followed, Peter's rogue opinions and impulsive behaviors appear to vindicate his original opinion of himself. He was no "rock" in those early days, and most of us—had we been the rabbi—would probably have offloaded him at the first opportunity.

Jesus' next decision to call both Matthew, a tax collector, and Simon, a Zealot, is stunning when you think about it. These two men easily could have killed each other! Their political positions were as different as those of Bill Maher and Rush Limbaugh.

The 12 Jesus picked were diverse in their personalities, backgrounds, and expectations. Few of us would dare to put these people in the same room together, much less anticipate depth from them.

How Do You Deepen a Disciple?

So how did Jesus deepen these men? Three answers: emulation, information, and examination.


The disciples of a rabbi sought to mimic everything about their mentor. What did he think? How did he talk? How did he eat? Disciples desired to be flawless copies of their rabbi. They believed that the rabbi was the incarnation of the Torah, and they, in turn, wished for others to see the example of the rabbi in them. Now we can understand Paul when he says: "I want to know Christ… becoming like him in his death" (Philippians 3:10).


The rabbi might teach in the Temple area, but rabbis often taught away from a classroom and out on the roads, in the fields, at the marketplace, and on the lake shore. Everything in ordinary life became an illustration of the rabbi's teaching; most everything was taught in story form or in riddles and proverbs designed to make a point and challenge the disciple's mind. Rabbis were unafraid to leave conclusions up in the air. Even Jesus tells stories with no obvious application, allowing his disciples to interpret and come to understanding on their own.


Rabbis provided times of testing. Think of Jesus' ministry: the storm, feeding the 5000, the betrayal in the garden. All times of testing. You can hear Jesus, say, "Where is your faith?" when the storm is quieted. "You give them something to eat," he demands pointing to the crowd. "You're all going to forsake me," he predicts. There were also rebukes: "Get behind me, Satan." And questions: "What were you discussing when I wasn't there?" And assignments: "He sent them to preach the kingdom of God…"

Rabbis are not necessarily nice guys. They constantly raise the bar on their disciples. They are not reluctant to open up their own lives; they know how to poke into the inner space of their disciples; they know how to bring out the best in others. So, be prepared to face the difficult areas of your life as well as the habits or personality traits that need to be dissected and changed.

When the rabbi decided the contract had been fulfilled, he discharged his disciples. Again, Jesus said: "You're servants no longer; you're friends." "It's best for you that I go away." "You're going to do more than I've done." "Love one another as you've been loved." "Get out into the world and replicate yourselves by teaching what I've taught you."

After saying these things, he left them. His teachings now burned into their heads, his spirit now resident in their hearts. Finally, they were on their way to becoming deep people.

Discipleship Is Serious Business

Paul is thinking about the rabbinical contract when he writes to Timothy. "What I've taught you… teach others… who will teach others." Do it by being an example, Paul says, "in speech [what and how you say things], in life [the way you live], love [your quality of relationships], faith [how you trust God], and purity [your moral choices]." That's all rabbinical talk, as well as “command, rebuke, exhort.” In short: Timothy's assignment was to grow deep people.

Here's a final thought. We want to be disciples of Jesus, not of someone else. The rabbi's deep people are not his. Disciples are not to be owned, controlled, or misused. They belong to Jesus, and he is free to guide them toward life and leadership in the church but also, possibly, beyond it. The church's greatest treasure—these deep people—must be shared, exported, and sent out.

When Jesus prayed before his arrest in the garden, what did he pray for? He prayed for "those whom you gave me." Hear him: "I have revealed you to them… I have given them your word… they need your protection… they need to be sanctified… I've sent them out."

He prayed not for the crowds he'd preached to, but for the disciples he'd cultivated.

I have known a "rabbi" or two in my life who guided me through the process of emulation, instruction, and examination. Sometimes they were tough, sometimes tender. They believed in the present and future me. They saw what I might become and endeavored to deepen me. They are all gone now, but I have their "word" and am committed to handing their gospel on to others.

Gordon MacDonald is chancellor of Denver Seminary. He is author of numerous books, including Going Deep: Becoming A Person of Influence. This article is adapted from one that first appeared in Leadership Journal.

Related Bible Studies

Free Newsletters

More Newsletters

Follow us