Monday, October 26, 2009

Matthew 7:15–20

Matthew 7:15–20 (ESV): Knowing a tree by its fruit


In this passage Jesus warns his hearers about false prophets, and uses a couple of potent metaphors to illustrate what he means.

First of all, he says that a false prophet will come to you in “sheep’s clothing,” but are really “ravenous wolves” (verse 15 (ESV)), which, I’m pretty sure, must the the origin of the phrase “wolf in sheep’s clothing.”

But how do you know if a prophet is a real prophet or a false prophet? You judge the person based on their fruit. Jesus spends some time on this metaphor, and breaks it down in two ways:
  • The type of fruit is determined by the type of tree; you don’t get grapes from thornbushes, and neither do you get figs from thistles. If you want grapes, you have to go to a grapevine, and if you want figs, you have to go to a fig tree. By its very nature, a thornbush just cannot produce grapes.
  • A healthy tree won’t bear bad fruit, and neither will a diseased tree bear good fruit.
So you’ve got two types of trees that can’t bear good fruit: A tree that isn’t supposed to bear fruit in the first place, like a thornbush or a thistle, and a tree that’s diseased. What do you do with such trees? According to Jesus:
Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. (verse 19 (ESV))


In this passage, Jesus is talking about “prophets,” but I don’t know how literally we need to take that word. I think it would also apply to preachers, or, for that matter, even someone who wants to give you advice. Many people will come to you with a message, claiming that it’s based in Christianity, but we need to be discerning, and measure that message up against what the Word says. If the two don’t add up, the person is a “false prophet.”

Jesus says that you can’t get grapes from a thornbush, and you can’t get figs from a thistle. I don’t think it would be too earth-shattering to say that I think he is referring to non-believers. Someone who is not a child of God is, by definition, a false prophet. God will sometimes use non-believers to accomplish His will, it’s very true, but He will not make one His prophet. Of course, I’ve just said that I’m taking this passage to be more general than just pure “prophets,” so how does that apply to people like preachers, or even people who want to give you advice? (Because yes, someone can become a preacher even if they don’t trust in the Son for their salvation. It’s happened.) When it comes to a message that someone is bringing to you, it’s possible that there is some good in that message, even if the person is a non-believer. Even people who do not trust in the Son can say things that are correct; for example, in the last passage I blogged about, I even mentioned that most (if not all?) religions/philosophies have some form of the Golden Rule. But we have to sift through what they’re saying; whatever they say which is in accord with the Word of God is correct, and whatever differs is incorrect. So, by definition, any “message” they have for us would be imperfect. And of course without the Holy Spirit to guide their thinking, there will often be much that disagrees with the Word.

Jesus then talks about trees that are diseased vs. trees that are healthy. A healthy tree will bear good fruit, and a diseased tree will bear bad fruit. Again, I don’t think it would be too earth-shattering to say that I think this is referring to Christians. If a Christian’s relationship with God has become diseased—if they’re not reading their Bible and having devotional time as they should, if they’re not praying as they should, if there is a sin which is plaguing them that they need to repent of—then of course the Holy Spirit will be hampered in guiding that person. Sin brings us away from God, and prayer and devotional time and fellowship with the Saints and the Lord’s Table bring us to Him; if we’re doing things we shouldn’t, and not doing things we should, then we won’t have the fellowship with God that we should, and it will hamper our wisdom. If a preacher is mired in a particular sin, will that preacher’s sermons be as good as they should? If a Christian is not praying as she should, will her advice to other Christians be as good as it should?

Of course, since these are metaphors, I don’t want to try and squeeze too much out of these verses. For example, Jesus says that any tree that doesn’t produce fruit is cut down and thrown in the fire—since we think of hell any time we see fire in Jesus’ metaphors, does that mean that a non-Christian who isn’t producing fruit will go to hell? No; by definition, if you’re a Christian, you’re not going to hell. But that Christian is not currently being any use to God. (It gives me a shudder to mention anyone being “useful” to God, who needs nothing from us, but I just mean what the passage is saying: the person is not bearing any fruit. There is no outward indication that the person is a Christian, in other words.) Even though a Christian will not go to hell, if that person is not bearing fruit, it is a valid exercise for her to question whether her faith is real. It may be a temporary lapse, that the Spirit will correct, or it may be a sign of an unsaved soul, that had been fooling itself.

Another possibility is that when Jesus refers to trees that are diseased he’s not talking about Christians at all, in which case the people in question will be literally “thrown in the fire.” If that were the case, I’d say that thornbushes and thistles would represent people who don’t even claim to be Christians, and diseased trees represent people who claim to be Christians but aren’t; it really depends how literally you want to interpret the verse about burning these plants in the fire. I interpret the passage the way that I do because of the diseased trees part; to me, that sounds like a tree that used to bear fruit, but no longer can. Luckily, the message of this passage isn’t changed either way; if someone comes to you with a message, and claims its from God (or at the very least that it’s according to Christian principles), you need to judge whether or not that person is a real prophet or a false one, and you do that by looking at the person’s fruit.

Incidentally, this may be too obvious to need stating, but I’ll state it anyway: If a person comes to you with a message—whether it be a sermon, a bit of advice, or the person claims to be an out-and-out prophet—and you are tasked with discerning whether or not that person is bearing good fruit, and whether or not that person’s message stands up to the Word of God, then of course you have to know the Word of God too. You can’t decide that a person is a false prophet based on their fruit if you don’t properly understand what fruit they should be producing.

Now, I’ve been concentrating on “messages” people might have, and how we have to tell prophets from false prophets. But of course, Jesus is using the metaphor of fruit in this passage, which applies to more than just wisdom; I’d say it also applies to the fruit of the Spirit, found in Galatians 5:16–26 (ESV), especially verses 22–23:
But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law. (verses 22–23 (ESV))
As I say, since Jesus is using the term “prophet,” I take this passage to be more about people who have some kind of a “message” for us, but the concept applies generally to the fruit of the Spirit: a non-Christian will not have the fruit of the Spirit, and a Christian whose relationship with God is hampered will not bear it as she should.

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