Dr. Charles Franklin DeVane, Jr., Pastor
Lake Hamilton Baptist Church
Hot Springs, Arkansas
September 7, 2014
“Either make the tree good and its fruit good, or make the tree bad and its fruit bad, for the tree is known by its fruit. You brood of vipers! How can you speak good, when you are evil? For out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks. The good person out of his good treasure brings forth good, and the evil person out of his evil treasure brings forth evil. I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.”
— Matthew 12:33-37, ESV
This passage is not usually counted among the parables presented in the New Testament Gospels. A parable is a fictional story with figurative meanings attached to a few people or things in order to make a profound, personal, and powerful point about the kingdom of God. Nobody, before or since, has spoken parables with the perfect touch of Jesus Christ.
But Jesus did not set out to sit down and tell them a good story here. He was involved in an ongoing debate with the Pharisees, which consumes most of this chapter in Matthew. And though these verses may not be considered a parable, our Lord did use parabolic language to take on some tough matters.
Jesus talked about trees, good and bad. He talked about fruit, which falls from every tree. He threw in a bunch of snakes for good measure. Then departing from figurative language, He fixed His sight on the sober reality of Judgment Day. And whether you are a tree, a fruit, a snake, or just a regular guy, this is a day that all must face.
Trees were a favorite parabolic picture of people for John the Baptist and our Lord Jesus Christ, particularly in the context of Judgment Day. Both John and Jesus truthfully told that all trees, all people, will be harvested by God. Some of them will be used for building, some of them will be used for burning. True to form, all people are either building up the kingdom of God or they are just fodder for the final fire.
What makes the difference? Obviously, it has everything to do with how the tree is made and what kind of fruit the tree bears. We will examine the fruit in a moment, but for now let’s keep our focus on the trees. Who made the trees? God did, of course. Did God make some good and some bad? Does this passage teach the doctrine of double predestination, that a person is planted or born to go in an irreversible direction towards Heaven or Hell? Some say yes, even making an argument from Scripture. But I say no, and will try to connect the dots in this colorful text.
God has made all the trees, and in the beginning He made them good. Just look at the creation account in Genesis where, after making mankind, God said it was all good. But then, something poisoned the trees. Sin, symbolized by the serpent, made us all sinners, or in the words of Jesus, “A brood of vipers.” This terrible term does not apply just to the Pharisees, but to all sinners, all humans, all of the trees in the forest. Sin and depravity effects every human heart, rendering them, in the words of Jeremiah, deceitful and desperately wicked more than we know. Bad trees bear bad fruit, and left untended bares a bad and burning end.
But as the rest of this story goes, there is a subtle and complex change that takes place among some of the trees. Some of them somehow become good and bear good fruit. Some of them are justified, compared with the rest that are condemned. What happened? How did the good tree gone bad get made good again? It is called the gospel, which is what this passage, the Gospel of Matthew, the New Testament, and all the word of God is all about.
Through the gospel a tree is saved. The poison is taken out. The curse is reversed. By grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone, a good tree gone bad is made good by God. And the clear difference, between a good tree and a bad tree, is the fruit.
Fruit is another word in the Bible that is fairly common and ripe with meaning. It is used literally and figuratively, and the figurative use is always like the literal. Fruit is produce. Specific fruit trees produce specific types of fruit, and so do people.
In this passage, the fruit people produce is generally called good and bad. When referring to fruit as general labor, fruit becomes overly generalized. All people produce all kinds of fruit, generally speaking, for even lost people can do good things and saved people can do bad things.
We can narrow the focus a little more when we understand there is often a parallel in Scripture, and I think it exists here, in good and godly. In the long run, lost people do not devote themselves to godly worship and works, but saved people do. Perhaps a person’s lifestyle and repetitive actions reveal their relationship with God, and this could serve as a proper inspection of fruit in many biblical passages.
But the context of this text refers to fruit in an even more specific sense. Fruit is words or speech. From the heart of the tree, fruit comes out of the mouth. Examining the words that come out of the mouth allows others to know what God already knows, namely what kind of tree it is we are looking at, whether it is good for building or bad for burning.
Words can hurt you, because they can hurt others. Words can help you, because they can bless others. And it seems to me that Jesus is saying that the words that come out of your mouth, and perhaps some that don’t, are indicators of your final destiny. So, let us become fruit inspectors and examine the two types of fruit coming from the two types of trees.
Good, godly, or redeemed people bring forth speech filled with words that are good, godly, and redemptive. Though a positive attitude alone cannot get you into Heaven, people bound for glory are mostly positive people. Knowing you are saved and forgiven and bound for Heaven should put you and for the most part keep you in a good mood, spouting forth good words. Christian people speak godly words, in prayer and praise and public and private worship, to God and to one another. And true believers truly want other people to believe, so they speak gospel words of witness so that other people might be saved and live in the good forest of God.
On the other hand, bad trees produce bad fruit that sounds evil and idle. Evil in this sense does not necessarily mean vile, although I do not look for many shock jocks and other assorted perverts to be in Heaven. Evil simply means ungodly. Atheistic claims, any humanistic manifesto that erases God from the equation, any false gospel from a false religion, any speech aimed at hurting or harming a human being created in the image of God, God’s name in vain, filthy talk, gossip and slander, and several other categories of words are rotten fruit thrown at people and thrown in the face of God.
And while evil describes rotten fruit thrown at God, idle is a word that speaks of the words that do not fall from the bad tree. These would include words of faith and repentance, words of worship and prayer, words of encouragement to a downtrodden soul, or words of gospel witness to a lost soul. If you cannot say such words, or bear bad fruit, then you must be a tree fit for the fire, not the kingdom of God.
While we can be fruit inspectors, none of us can take wear the robe of the Judge. That role belongs to God. For God alone can see what we cannot see, namely the heart, which produces the fruit that falls from the tree.
But this text is one of many that assures all mankind that there is a Judgment Day to come. It will be a day of justification, or salvation, for those who have received the grace of God through faith in Jesus Christ. It will be a day of condemnation for everyone else. Perhaps we will stand before God with a giant tape recorder at His side, replaying every word we have ever spoken in our lives on earth. More likely, it will be just one look in God’s eyes that reveal to us He already knows every word, has judged them all collectively, and will accordingly send us to where we belong.
Where do you belong?
If you are a tree planted outside the kingdom of God, outside of the grace of God, absent of faith in God, nowhere near the Lordship of Jesus Christ, then know you are in great danger. If your speech is filled with filthy things, or if your conversations are consistently filled with all sorts of negative and hurtful words, or if your language lacks the language of God in worship and Bible study, then know you are in great danger. Most of these trees are planted in forests outside the visible church. Some have managed to grow wild within our pews. All of them will be cut and burned by God in the final day of judgment.
If you are a tree planted firmly within the kingdom of God, nourished by the generous Spirit of God and word of God, following closely the Son of God, for the glory of God, then you know you are planted in good ground. How do you know? By your words. Take note of your words this week, whether they be good or bad, godly or evil, interested in the things of God or indifferent. Know what kind of tree you are. Know what kind of fruit you bear. Know what kind of words you use, or fail to use. Then you can put yourself in the parable, know the spiritual truth, and find out in whose forest you will live in forever.