Jesus liked to tell stories that people could easily understand so he used illustrations drawn from everyday life. This morning the verses we're looking at draw upon some simple gardening knowledge – Jesus spoke to his followers about trees and the fruit they bear. If you are a Bible reader you'll know that this type of fruit-bearing or gardening language is regularly employed to teach spiritual truths. Jesus wasn't out to turn his hearers into better gardeners but he did want them to get a clearer understanding of spiritual realities.
In the immediately preceding verses Jesus had taught his folowers how they ought to behave towards others. There he had insisted that love had to be the dominant feature driving their relationships with others. The love he had in mind was not sloppy or sentimental but it was to be strong and active. This sort of love would express itself generously in the real action of doing good, of being kind, of blessing and not cursing others. This type of love would also avoid hypocritical, negative and judgmental criticism.
Now in vv.43-45 Jesus turns from prescription to description. There are no new commands to be found in these verses, instead Jesus explains what takes place in the lives of men and women. Just as plants and trees naturally bear fruit so too do men and women. We all bear fruit. Every single individual bears fruit. For the simple reason that fruit is what our lives produce – fruit is the inevitable outcome of who we are and what we believe. So if I am a Christian there must be and will be fruit in my life that acts as evidence that I really am a Christian. If I become a Christian I must be prepared for significant change to be brought about in my life. The fruit I used to produce before becoming a follower of Jesus Christ will have to be replaced by a new fruit.
This teaching also helps us know how to evaluate the claims of others to be Christian. In many parts of the world it is easy to call yourself a Christian but we want to know whether such claims are genuine – so we can look for what their life produces, is the fruit they bear fruit that shows them to be Christian? We have a way of checking.
Of course we must be charitable and wise as we do this – fruit takes time to grow and may also be misshapen when it does grow – like the so-called ugly fruit that the supermarkets won't sell. We're not to expect perfect fruit but we are entitled to look for some fruit.
So the teaching of this whole section is very helful for us.
We're going to proceed by looking at three different aspects of fruit-bearing:
Our purpose is to bear fruit
Different kinds of fruit
How God produces fruit
Our Purpose is to bear Fruit
In the last few years I have started to enjoy gardening and this year I have taken to sowing seeds with a vengeance and consequently I have trays and pots of seeds all over the place. There is a sense of achievement when you first notice some green shoots poking through the potting compost.
I planted out 5 sunflower seedlings last week and the following day went out to see how they were getting on (patience not being my strongest suit). Two of the seedlings had totally disappeared. It reminded me of marigolds we planted in France – there one day gone the next as some hungry slugs thought they'd won the lottery.
Why am I telling you this? Well simply to point out what should be obvious – we are not satisfied with seedlings, not even with seedlings that grow a bit – we want them to become mature and produce flowers or fruit. I planted those sunflower seeds because I wanted to see sunflowers in my garden.
It is natural for us to expect flowers from a plant and fruit from a tree – if they don't produce the looked for flowers or fruit then there is a problem.
Similarly men and women have been created in God's image in order to bear fruit for God and for God's glory. At the beginning Adam was given the responsibility of looking after the Garden of Eden but he failed and instead of producing the fruit of faithful obedience turned away from God. Men and women have been failing to produce the right kind of fruit in their lives ever since.
But Jesus came to sort all this out. He called men to be his followers and told them:
Jn.15:16 "You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you that you should go and bear fruit and that your fruit should abide,"
And the type of fruit they would bear would specifically be for the glory of God:
Rom.7:4 "Likewise, my brothers, you also have died to the law through the body of Christ, so that you may belong to another, to him who has been raised from the dead, in order that we may bear fruit for God."
More detail is supplied as to just how this might come about:
2Cor.9:13 "By their approval of this service, they will glorify God because of your submission flowing from your confession of the gospel of Christ, and the generosity of your contribution for them and for all others,"
1Pet.2:12 "Keep your conduct among the Gentiles honorable, so that when they speak against you as evildoers, they may see your good deeds and glorify God on the day of visitation."
Sin spoiled the first creation in so many ways but did not cause God to rewrite his plans – Jesus came to bring about a new creation and make men and women able to fulfil God's purpose for their lives and to finally produce the type of fruit that pleases him!
So just as a gardener looks for fruit from his fruit trees so God looks for fruit in the lives of his people. It is natural for the gardener; it is natural for God!
You know the Parable of the Sower don't you? We are used to focusing perhaps on the different types of soil that are described in that parable but the underlying assumption of the entire parable is that seed when it is sown should produce a harvest – the problem with all but one of the soils was that it produced nothing!
So then because it is God's purpose that men and women should be fruit-bearers we should take a look at the different types of fruit that we might bear.
Different kinds of fruit
Fruit can be divided up in a number of different ways and it is not rocket science.
Jesus spoke firstly of a very simple distinction:
There is good fruit and there is bad fruit!
And when we look at our own life or at the life of someone we know what we produce will fall into one or other of those two categories. A good tree will produce good fruit Jesus said and similarly a bad tree will produce bad fruit – it cannot be otherwise.
When this simple truth is applied to what men and women produce Jesus adds the additional information that the source of this good or bad fruit is to be located in a person's heart. The heart is the GHQ of a person, the centre of command where all the major decisions are taken. If the heart is fundamentally wrong then bad fruit will be the outcome good fruit can only proceed from a heart that has gained a good treasure.
In other words what a person does is determined by what a person is!
The Bible says that our most fundamental problem is not that we sin but that we are sinners. We sin because we are sinners, we can't do anything else. Rotten at the core the fruit of our lives can never be anything other than rotten in God's sight because it proceeds from a heart that is not right with him – it is a heart full of evil treasure. Only when this evil treasure has been replaced by the good treasure of the Jesus Christ can God-pleasing fruit be produced.
Before we become Christians, when we were living for ourselves and not bothered about serving God, the only kind of fruit we produce is according to Rom.7:5 "fruit for death."
While then it is clear that there is this fundamental distinction between good and bad fruit the Bible doesn't only speak of fruit in this way.
John the Baptist when he came preached a message of repentance warning his hearers to flee from the wrath to come. An integral part of this message was a call to "bear fruit in keeping with repentance" (Mt.3:8) The heart change of repentance had to be accompanied by a reorientation of life – life couldn't go on as it had done before.
The apostle Paul writing to the Christians in Rome explained to them the blessings and the riches of the Christian faith. The gospel spoke about being set free from sin in order to live a new life of willing slavery to God a life that bore fruit leading to both sanctification and eternal life. Do you see here again the change that takes place in the life of the believer –a new and a different kind of fruit begins to be produced in his life and it leads to wonderful blessings.
In other places Paul developed further this idea of the evidence of a changed transformed life working itself out in the life of a Christian. As he did so he would refer to:
The fruit of the Spirit in Gal.5:22
The fruit of light Eph.5:8
The fruit of righteousness Phil.1:11
Paul would also tell the Christians in Colosse that he prayed for them to be fruitful in the Christian lives – he wanted them to be fruitful in every good work, increasing in the knowledge of God". Col.1:10
Nor was Paul the only NT author to write in this way. The writer to the Hebrews spoke of the "peaceful fruit of righteousness" Heb.12:11 and he also described the praise that Christians offered God as being the fruit of lips that acknowledged his name.
Christians, real Christians, simply cannot go on living as they had before – so much changes when a person becomes a Christian and fruit must follow when such a transformation occurs. That is what it means when Jesus said that "each tree is known by its own fruit."
How God produces fruit
Fruit in a Christian's life owes its existence not to tremendous efforts or straining on his part but upon God.
That doesn't mean that the Christian sits back, puts his feet up and becomes inactive. The most godly Christians are active Christians. Of Jesus himself it is written:
Acts 10:38 "He went about doing good and healing all who were oppressed by the devil, for God was with him."
So if it doesn't mean inactivity what does it mean?
It means that the Christian does not spend his time focusing upon his own fruit. If we do that we will end up in a legalism of doing this and doing that and it won't be long before we begin either to be pretty pleased with ourselves and give way to pride or to become so depressed at what we find that we give in to despair and give up.
But if we don't focus on our fruit what do we focus upon?
And the answer is Jesus himself. As we are more and more taken up with Jesus we will be made gradually more and more like him.
This is in part what Jesus spoke of to his disciples when he told them of their need to abide or dwell in him because apart from him they would not be able to bear any fruit at all:
Jn.15:5 "I am the vine; you are the branches. Whoever abides in me and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing."
If you would bear that good fruit that is pleasing to God you must first become a Christian – bearing such fruit is a consequence of our new relationship with him and not the way to securing that relationship. But once in Christ we must remain in him, we must go on with him, we must dwell in him and on him. As we do that keeping our hearts rooted in Christ God works by his Spirit to produce the good fruit in our lives.
And this is how God works:
He is patient.
Patience is not something that is greatly valued today – everybody seems to want it asap if not sooner. Instant coffee, instant milk, fast food or ready meals. Faster and faster broadband connections, instant messaging. Instant replays on TV. No one must wait for more than a few hours in A&E. Diets must be able to offer us significant weight loss in next to no time.
And we get caught up in this. We check our seeds on a daily basis to see whether they've sprouted yet – the child perhaps even digs up the seed to have a closer look.
Plenty of folk watching a major sporting occasion on TV join a club in a burst of enthusuiasm but when they don't quickly hit the heights of their heros they quickly give up again conveniently forgetting that those heros have spent hour after long gruelling hour training and honing their skills. No we want it and we want it now.
And so on the spiritual front we want to be like David in a day or Moses in a month.
But God is patient – he's in it for the long haul. Yes, it's true that some fruit grows on this years wood but some fruit only appears on last year's growth. Some olive trees will begin to produce fruit in their third year but other varieties may not produce fruit for 5-12 years!
If we keep on looking at ourselves we may become frustrated and disillusioned by our apparent lack of progress but we should not be looking at ourselves – to look at Jesus Christ is far more satisfying!
He feeds and waters
Plants need nutrients if they are to grow and they need water too. God ensures that his people have all that is necessary for them to grow, to mature and to bear the fruit he wishes them to produce.
He feeds us with his Word. He gives us our daily bread but he knows we have need of more than that, he knows that a spiritual person cannot live by bread alone. The Bible is God's Word and teaches us nourishing us spiritually. It tells us all we need to know about ourselves our needs and the wonderful way in which has provided for us in sending us his Son, the Lord Jesus Christ, to be our Saviour. As we hear the Word, as we read it ourselves, as we think about it and as we heed its warning and respond to its invitations and rely upon its promise our souls are fed and strengthened.
The written Word of God doesn't leave us on our own trying to solve the problems it reveals to us but is accompanied with the sweet influences of the Holy Spirit who leads us continually to he who is the Word of God incarnate, the Bread of Life come down from Heaven. And so we respond by coming to Jesus who feeds us and quenches our thirst and renews us all over agin refreshing us with his Spirit that we might grow stronger and produce more fruit to the glory of God.
He prunes and cuts back and thins out.
Sometimes the process that is involved in making us bear fruit is a painful one and might even appear to us to be moving in the wrong direction. As a inexperienced gardener I don't like the idea of thinning out the seedlings that spring up in my seed tray – I want them all to grow after all it all looks so promising with so many having germinated and sprung into life. And yet the experienced gardener knows that those seedlings will need to be thinned out or nothing of worth will be ever be produced.
In our Christian lives too we may be trying to do so many different things that nothing of worth can grow and develop – some thinning out may be necessary.
God also cuts back and prunes. This can involve more than one sort of intervention – dead wood made need to be taken away completely. None of us is perfect and along the way we produce so much dead wood that hinders the growth of a beautifully shaped plant so God takes his spiritual secateurs and cuts away. At other times it is not dead wood that needs to be cut out but live wood needs to be cut back so that the plant can flourish and become stronger.
This disciple can be painful and the effects are necessarily immediately appreciated – and yet sometimes the severest of pruning leads to much greater beauty, development and fruitfulness.
Pruning like this is no sign of divine displeasure in fact it is quite the reverse – God prunes only that which he wants to bear more and better fruit.
How glad we should be as Christians that God is at work by his Spirit to produce fruit in our lives!
Let us be prepared to undergo those necessary changes that he will bring about in our lives to achieve his ends.
Let us not get stuck trying to hold out against him when we don't quite like what happens to us in the various growth cycles. An apple tree in full blossom is a glorious sight but that blossom must fall away so that the apples may grow. Don't try to hang on to the spiritual equivalent of apple blossom. After all an apple tree only really fulfills its reason for being when its branches are weighed down and it is groaning under the weight of a bumper crop of apples!
May God call us each one to faith in Christ and then may he cause us each one to bear fruit to his glory.