In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul wrote about the growth that comes in the Christian life. He explained that some ministry is like sowing seed, some is like watering plants, but it is God who brings the growth (1 Corinthians 3:5–9). Thus, in one sense, all ministry is a kind of spiritual horticulture—we participate with God to promote growth.
What kinds of things go into promoting healthy spiritual growth? There are many places we might turn in Scripture for insight. One fascinating snapshot is found in the Gospel of Luke in the account of Jesus’ appearance to two disciples on the road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13–35).
After the resurrection, these two left Jerusalem. They were feeling downcast. Reading Luke’s account, it is clear they had some understanding of who Jesus was and they had some idea of what transpired in the days leading up to Jesus’ death and burial. They have heard reports of the resurrection, but aren’t sure what to make of the reports.
And Jesus shows up to join them on their trip—yet He keeps them from immediately recognizing Him. It’s interesting to watch the encounter unfold. Luke doesn’t tell us everything Jesus said to these two, but he does provide us some insight.
What happened in the encounter? How did Jesus encourage the spiritual growth of these two disciples?
First, Jesus offered a little “theological orientation.” He saw that their thinking about the Messiah was not spot on, so He addressed that. He clarified for them: “Was it not necessary for the Messiah to suffer these things and to enter into His glory?” (24:26).
Then comes some “Biblical understanding.” In order to readjust and secure their thinking about the Messiah, Jesus led them in a Bible study. “Beginning with Moses [the first five books of the Old Testament] and with all the prophets, He explained to them the things concerning Himself in all the Scriptures” (24:27).
And there is one last piece. Jesus gave these two disciples a personal “spiritual experience” with Himself. “When Jesus had reclined at the table with them, He took the bread and blessed it, and breaking it, He began giving it to them. Then their eyes were opened and they recognized Him; and He vanished from their sight.” (24:30–31).
A three-part foundation for growth: theological orientation, Biblical understanding, and spiritual experience. They don’t always come in that order; all three pieces are not always equally emphasized. But journeying through the Scriptures in an exploration of what goes into “spiritual horticulture,” this three-part foundation seems to be fundamental.
Jesus explained it this way: “If you continue in My word [the ‘Biblical understanding’], then you are truly disciples of Mine, and you will know the truth [‘theological orientation’], and the truth will make you free [‘spiritual experience’]” (John 8:31–32).