Analogies & Parables in Matthew: 9. All about fruit
Mt 7:16 By their fruit you will recognize them
In the previous study we summarised the earlier verses in this chapter as follows: what we have here is a supreme challenge to enter into a new world, the world of Christ, the kingdom of God that works on very different values to the rest of the world. That was followed by the analogy of two ways ahead – a narrow gate leading to life and a wide gate leading to destruction, and the challenge was to choose which one to go through, with the consequences that follow. The wide gate and the broad road look inviting and easy but they are deceptive. In the next study we’ll see the two house builders and the temptation of building on sand, because it looks easy, but that is deception which will lead to destruction. This same idea comes through again and again – be careful, everything is not as it seems; there will be consequences that follow choice and they may be bad!
Now in this same vein, Jesus uses two different language pictures (not stories, not parables, but analogies) that are all about appearance. In the first one he warns about people who are deceivers: “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.” (v.15) False prophets (and the Bible has a number of warnings against listening to them) are those who speak wrong, false, deceptive and untrue words but the bigger issue about them, according to Jesus, is what they are like on the inside.
They look good on the outside; they come in disguise, he says, as if they had put on a sheepskin. Sheep, after all, are placid and easy going creatures, nothing to worry about. These people make out that they are like this, but they are deceivers because, on the inside, says Jesus, they are ferocious wolves. Now why the analogy of wolves? Well wolves are predators that are out for themselves and they get their food, their means of living, by pulling down and destroying other creatures. They separate the individual sheep off from the flock and then bring it down. False prophets speak false words for their own benefit, that they might get a reputation, get given money and a position; ultimately they are out for self. The untruths they speak are the sort of words that people like to hear: you are not guilty, God won’t act against your sin, and anyway what is sin, we’re all free to do what we like, it will be all right, be yourself, live as you wish.
But Jesus has a very simple way of checking them out: “By their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.16a) Look at their lives, are they full of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22,23), are they holy? Look at the fruit of their teaching; do you see lives that are godly and good and holy? If you look back in history you will find many ‘philosophers’ or maybe authors or poets or artists who were feted by society but their lives were a mess. Look at leaders today, whether they be spiritual or politicians or simply what are called today, ‘celebrities’. Look at their lives. How many have just one wife, how many have an orderly family, how many show the fruit of righteousness? By their fruit you will know what they are really like.
Then, to emphasise this point, Jesus uses the analogy of fruit: “Do people pick grapes from thorn bushes, or figs from thistles?” (v.16b) i.e. think about bushes and trees that bear fruit. He continues: “Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit. A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.” (v.17,18) It is a very simple analogy: good fruit comes from one sort of tree. A healthy fruit tree, we might say, bears good fruit. Bushes, trees or shrubs that carry thorns don’t bear the fruit we can eat, fruit that is good. Apples come from apple trees, not from fir trees. Pears come from pear trees not briars. Beware pushing the analogy too far because blackberries, gooseberries etc. come from spiky, prickly bushes – but nevertheless you know the bush they come from.
Look at the fruit and you’ll know the bush or tree. It is so obvious that the spiritual analogy is simple to apply: good fruit of the Spirit doesn’t come a bad heart. Bad things – selfishness, self-will, denial of God’s truths, bending of God’s truths, lust, envy, covetousness etc. etc. don’t come from a good heart. And bear in mind, Jesus adds, what happens to trees that are supposed to bear good fruit but don’t: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” (v.19) The implied warning is very obvious: God will hold us accountable and it doesn’t matter what we ‘say’, it’s the fruit that reveals the sort of people we are. He concludes a second time: “Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.” (v.20)
Now put all this into context. Previously he warned about the only valid way of entering the kingdom of God, a kingdom with specific behaviour, good behaviour, righteous behaviour. It doesn’t matter that there is a wide gate and a broad road – they are deceptive and lead to destruction. In the parable that follows, don’t worry about the fact that the sand looks smooth and flat, it’s not safe to build on it, it is deception that leads to destruction when storms come. And now in our present verses, don’t just accept everything by the words you hear. Think about it. Look at the fruit of the lives of people who teach questionable things. Look at the outworking of their teaching. There are good, God-given ministries that we are to follow and there are imitations who pretend to be the same, but aren’t. Look at their backgrounds, how they got here, and where their teaching takes us. Good comes from God and godly ministries, and brings more godly fruit. Bad flows from self, with untruths that bring further self-orientated but godless living. Beware!