Living Water

10 Jesus answered her, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.” 11 The woman said to him, “Sir, you have nothing to draw water with, and the well is deep. Where do you get that living water? 12 Are you greater than our father Jacob? He gave us the well and drank from it himself, as did his sons and his livestock.” 13 Jesus said to her, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, 14 but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” – John 4:10-14 ESV

37 On the last day of the feast, the great day, Jesus stood up and cried out, “If anyone thirsts, let him come to me and drink. 38 Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” 39 Now this he said about the Spirit, whom those who believed in him were to receive, for as yet the Spirit had not been given, because Jesus was not yet glorified. – John 7:37-39 ESV

What is the key to living the Christian life? That’s an age-old question that has garnered a wide range of answers over the centuries. Even within the 1st-Century in which Jesus lived and died, the early church found itself debating and disagreeing over this question, even though the disciples of Jesus had been given the answer by Jesus and had experienced evidence of its veracity at Pentecost.

Just minutes before His ascension into heaven, Jesus had told His disciples, “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you, and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth” (Acts 1:8 ESV).

After hearing this somewhat cryptic promise from the lips of Jesus, the disciples had watched Jesus ascend into heaven, and then they returned to Jerusalem where they waited for the proof of Jesus’ promise. And they didn’t have to wait long.

When the day of Pentecost arrived, they were all together in one place. And suddenly there came from heaven a sound like a mighty rushing wind, and it filled the entire house where they were sitting. And divided tongues as of fire appeared to them and rested on each one of them. And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit gave them utterance. – Acts 2:1-4 ESV

Luke goes on to record the incredible results of that filling. Yes, they spoke in languages they didn’t know but, more importantly, they spoke with a power and boldness they hadn’t formerly possess. Peter, the one who had distinguished himself by denying he  even knew Jesus, now found himself fearlessly proclaiming the truth of the gospel to anyone who would listen. He spoke with a clarity and boldness that, no doubt, surprised him and shocked his fellow disciples. And it was all in keeping with the promise Jesus had made to them. He had told them that, when the time came and they found themselves standing in the synagogues and before rulers and authorities, “the Holy Spirit will teach you at that time what needs to be said” (Luke 12:12 NLT).

And Jesus had made it clear that their words would not be their own.

“For it is not you who will be speaking—it will be the Spirit of your Father speaking through you.” – Matthew 10:20 NLT

Again, Luke points out that the disciples were able to speak in languages they didn’t know because “the Holy Spirit gave them this ability” (Acts 2:4 NLT).

And just a few days later, Peter and John found themselves under arrest and standing before “the council of all the rulers and elders and teachers of religious law” (Acts 4:5 NLT). The Jewish high priest had these two men dragged before him and questioned them, “By what power, or in whose name, have you done this?” (Acts 4:7 NLT). And Luke records, “Then Peter, filled with the Holy Spirit, said to them…” (Acts 4:8 NLT).

As the book of Acts unfolds, we are provided with repeated proof of the Spirit’s presence and power in the lives of the disciples. The disciples, and all those who were coming to faith in Jesus, were displaying evidence of Jesus’ words: “Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water’” (John 7:38 ESV).

They were exhibiting never-before-seen evidence of the powerful transformation that had taken place when the Spirit had taken up residence within them. These men and women had been radically changed. They were not who they had been before. And the Spirit’s impact on their lives was, as Jesus had described it, like “living water.” It was zaō, a Greek word that means “alive.” This was not stagnant, standing water, like that found in a roadside ditch or a man-made cistern. It was living, vibrant, life-giving water that flowed freely and abundantly. And, as Jesus had promised, it flowed “out” of the heart, refreshing all those with whom it came into contact.

The Spirit’s presence within the disciples was not just life-transformative for them, but for all those around them. Others were impacted by the Spirit’s presence within them. Like a spring flowing from a hidden source, the Spirit poured out of the disciples and nourished the lives of others. The power of God, in the form of the indwelling Spirit of God, flowed from the followers of Christ and impacted the world in which they lived.

As Jesus had told the crowds who had gathered to hears His sermon on the mount: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled (Matthew 5:6 BSB). The disciples had been filled to overflowing, and now the power of the Spirit within them was spilling out and refreshing all those around them. It’s interesting to note that Paul lists the fruit of the Spirit as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. These are not inwardly-focused qualities. They are not intended to bless the one from whom they flow. No, they are meant to flow out and touch the lives of others. Self-love is not a fruit of the Spirit. Joy that focuses on one’s own happiness is not the fruit of the Spirit. The presence of peace in the absence of others is not peace at all, it’s selfish isolation and, most certainly, not the fruit of the Spirit. The kind of patience that fades away as soon as others show up is fake fruit.

Take a look at all the fruit mentioned by Paul. They are intended for the good of others. Which brings us back to our original question: What is the key to living the Christian life? Obviously, it’s the presence of the Holy Spirit. He is the power source. He is fountain from which the living water flows. And He exists in us in order that He might flow out from us.

When we think about living the Christian life, we tend to place all our emphasis on us. In other words, we focus on what we can get out of it. But God would have us consider what He desires to flow from us. The Christian life is not intended to be me-focused. It is not supposed to be some myopic, me-centered quest for personal gain, comfort, and satisfaction. The abundant life Jesus promised was not a guarantee of our best life now. No, it was the promise of thirst-quenching, life-giving, power flowing from within us and pouring out from us to all those around us.

Over in the book of Isaiah, there is a powerful invitation extended from the lips of God.

“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” – Isaiah 55:1 ESV

He invites the thirsty to come to Him and find refreshment. Earlier in the same book, God had promised His wayward people that salvation was available to them, if they would only come to Him in repentance. If and when they did, He promised them, “With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation” (Isaiah 12:3 ESV). The could find living water, but they had to come to the source.

And the amazing thing is that God has chosen to place that living water inside each and every one of His children. We have the Spirit, the water of life, living within us. And God intends for that life-giving water to flow from us to all those around us – to believers and non-believers alike. What’s the key to living the Christian life? The Spirit of God. But a better question might be: What’s the purpose of the Christian life? And the answer would be found in the words of Jesus.

“Whoever believes in me, as the Scripture has said, ‘Out of his heart will flow rivers of living water.’” – John 7:38 ESV

Our very existence as followers of Christ is so that the same life-giving power that filled us and quenched our spiritual thirst, will flow from us and bring refreshment to the lives of those who hunger and thirst after righteousness. And it shows up in the form of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

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Abide

1 “I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinedresser. Every branch in me that does not bear fruit he takes away, and every branch that does bear fruit he prunes, that it may bear more fruit. Already you are clean because of the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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 anyone does not abide in me he is thrown away like a branch and withers; and the branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. By this my Father is glorified, that you bear much fruit and so prove to be my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so have I loved you. Abide in my love. 10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.

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, so that whatever you ask the Father in my name, he may give it to you. 17 These things I command you, so that you will love one another. – John 15:1-11,16-17 ESV

Yesterday, we looked at three different imperatives or commands found in the New Testament Scriptures that seem to provide Christ-followers with marching orders: Put on…, put off…, and grow up…. But we saw that these non-negotiable requirements were never intended to be a list of activities we pursue in order to make ourselves more righteous in God’s eyes. Each is meant to be a means to an end, not an end in and of itself. The commands to “put on Christ” and to “put on the new self” are not to be seen as actions we implement in our own strength, according to our own will power. They are actions that flow from an inner awareness of our need for divine help in our own sanctification or growth in Christlikeness. While the Scriptures are replete with calls that seem to indicate our need to put effort into our quest for spiritual maturity, we must never lose sight of the fact that our growth is never up to us alone.

In his letter to the Philippian believers, Paul told them to, “work out your own salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12 ESV). At first glance, that sounds a bit foreboding and overwhelming. It appears as if Paul is calling them to save themselves. But the key to understanding Paul’s meaning is found in the phrase, “work out,” which is actually one word in the Greek, and it literally means “to do that from which something results.” It is a picture of salvation, a work of God, lived out in daily life through tangible, visible expressions of change. In other words, God’s salvation of sinful men is to be trul life-changing and transformational. Not only does it have future ramifications, in terms of the promise of eternal life, but it also has immediate implications that show up in the form of abundant life, right here, right now. 

And to make sure that the believers in Philippi understood that this working out of their salvation was not a call to increased effort at living a righteous life, Paul clarifies that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). In other words, our salvation is actually worked out through us as God works in us. And one of the key ways He accomplishes this work in us is by the presence of His Spirit within us.

In his letter to the believers in Rome, Paul makes several interesting observations about the Holy Spirit’s indwelling presence. First of all, he describes the Spirit as being the Spirit of God. Then he designates Him as the Spirit of Christ. And, finally, Paul seems to suggest that the indwelling Spirit is Christ Himself.

You, however, are not in the flesh but in the Spirit, if in fact the Spirit of God dwells in you. Anyone who does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ is in you, although the body is dead because of sin, the Spirit is life because of righteousness. – Romans 8:9-10 ESV

While all of this language may seem a bit contradictory or, at the least, confusing, it is simply a way of characterizing the total involvement of the Trinity in the sanctification of the believer. The entire Godhead, including the Father, Son, and Spirit, are unified in their work of transformating the believer into the likeness of Christ from “one degree of glory to another” (2 Corinthians 3:18). Notice how Paul easily exchanges and interchanges the names of Jesus and the Spirit as he discusses the divine transformation taking place in the life of the believer.

Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit. – 2 Corinthians 3:17-18 ESV

For Paul, the Spirit’s work in sanctification could not and should not be divorced from that of God the Father of the Son. As the unified Godhead, their efforts are always symbiotic and synergistic. It is a collaborative relationship. So, in John 15, when we hear Jesus speaking of the one who abides in Him, we must understand that this is far more than a call to a relationship of dependence upon Himself. This call to abide in Him and to have Him abide in you includes the other two members of the Trinity.

The picture is one of communion with the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. There is an interdependency involved, in which the believer enjoys a powerful and life-transformative union with the three members of the Holy Trinity. And, as if to stress the vital nature of this unity, Jesus discusses the topic of abiding 11 times in just 13 verses. Through the indwelling presence of the Holy Spirit, God the Father and God the Son abide within the life of the believer, and this powerful union produces undeniable and unavoidable outcomes, which Paul describes as fruit bearing.

Eight separate times, Jesus ties abiding to fruit bearing, and He uses the imagery of a vine and branch to drive home His message. This aggrarian reference would have struck a chord with His audience, providing them with a clear and compelling metaphor that made His point easier to comprehend. As a branch must cling to or remain attached to the vine in order to produce fruit, so a believer must see himself as completely reliant upon his relationship with the Trinity in order to be fruitful. And the abiding of which Jesus speaks is not meant to conjure up thoughts of effort or expended energy. A branch doesn’t have to work at abiding. It’s role requires a degree of passivity and complete receptivity, that allows the vine to produce the preferred outcome. As Jesus makes clear, the branch, apart from the vine, is useless. And the believer, apart from his relationship with the Trinity, is powerless to produce fruit.

“Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit by itself, unless it abides in the vine, neither can you, unless you abide in me. 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. – John 15:4 ESV

And the goal is fruitfulness. In other words, fruitlessness is not an option. Someone who is united with Christ, restored to a right relationship with the Father, and indwelled by the Spirit of God, will produce fruit. And, as Jesus makes clear, not just a little fruit, but a lot. The lack of fruit in an individual’s life is not from a lack of effort, but from a lack of a relationship with Jesus.

While this passage has been used by some to promote the idea that a believer can lose their salvation, that is not what Jesus is teaching. And you won’t find support for that false doctrine anywhere in Scripture. While there will be those who claim to know Christ and who believe themselves to be in an abiding relationship with Him, the proof will be in the fruitfulness of their lives. The presence of God in the life of a man or woman will always produce fruit. The bearing of fruit is the God-ordained purpose for every believer, and our fruit-bearing brings glory to God, because it is the work of God, from start to finish. As Paul told the Philippian believers, “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13 ESV). And, as he told them earlier in the same letter, “I am certain that God, who began the good work within you, will continue his work until it is finally finished on the day when Christ Jesus returns” (Philippians 1:6 NLT). 

Abiding is not something we do as much as it is something we embrace. It is not an effort we expend, but a lifestyle we express, through our humble reliance upon the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. From the moment we place our faith in Christ, we must constantly remind ourselves of our complete dependence upon Him for all that we need. He is the vine. We are the branches. The fruit is His work, not ours. The credit is His, not ours. Through our union with Him, we enjoy the blessing of being used by Him, for the good of others and the glory of His name.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

Cut Off and Dried Up

Awake, you drunkards, and weep,
    and wail, all you drinkers of wine,
because of the sweet wine,
    for it is cut off from your mouth.
For a nation has come up against my land,
    powerful and beyond number;
its teeth are lions’ teeth,
    and it has the fangs of a lioness.
It has laid waste my vine
    and splintered my fig tree;
it has stripped off their bark and thrown it down;
    their branches are made white.

Lament like a virgin wearing sackcloth
    for the bridegroom of her youth.
The grain offering and the drink offering are cut off
    from the house of the Lord.
The priests mourn,
    the ministers of the Lord.
10 The fields are destroyed,
    the ground mourns,
because the grain is destroyed,
    the wine dries up,
    the oil languishes.

11 Be ashamed, O tillers of the soil;
    wail, O vinedressers,
for the wheat and the barley,
    because the harvest of the field has perished.
12 The vine dries up;
    the fig tree languishes.
Pomegranate, palm, and apple,
    all the trees of the field are dried up,
and gladness dries up
    from the children of man. – Joel 1:5-12 ESV

The relentless waves of locusts have come and gone, leaving a lunar-like landscape in their wake. The land of Judah has been stripped bare of all vegetation as these voracious insects devoured every plant in their path.  Joel paints a grim picture of the aftermath of their devastating destruction, describing the grape vines as being “laid waste,” the fig trees as “splintered,” the fields as “destroyed,” and the trees of the field as “dried up.” And he calls on the people of Judah to mourn their loss. In fact, he addresses several distinctly different groups of individuals, in an obvious effort to show the non-discriminatory nature of the locust judgment.

First, he speaks to the drunkards (Hebrew: shikkowr), those who spend their days intoxicated by the fruit of the vine. These individuals were going to find the days ahead especially difficult to endure. While they would survive in the short-term, living off the surplus of wine from the last harvest, the day would come when the shelves at the local convenience store would be bare, and the storage vats would be dry. Suddenly, the drunks would find themselves with nothing to drink, and no way to satisfy their insatiable desire for wine-fueled escape. It will be a rude and unpleasant wake-up call, like an alcoholic having to go cold-turkey.

Joel compares the overwhelming numbers of the locusts to that of a vast human army “powerful and beyond number.” But he describes their capacity to devour and destroy as being like the teeth and fangs of a lion.  Then, Joel provides a graphic description of the devastating consequences of this vast army’s destructive power.  And he uses the voice of God to portray the scene.

It has destroyed my grapevines
    and ruined my fig trees,
stripping their bark and destroying it,
    leaving the branches white and bare. – Joel 1:7 NLT

This judgment from God has impacted the land of God. The land of promise, provided by God to the people of Judah, has had to suffer because of their sin. It was His grapevines that had been stripped bare, and the fig trees that were stripped of their bark and left with fruitless branches had been His property. The sins of mankind always impact the creation of God. Even the original fall left the created order under a curse. The apostle Paul describes creation as groaning under that curse, awaiting its re-creation at the return of Christ.

Against its will, all creation was subjected to God’s curse. But with eager hope, the creation looks forward to the day when it will join God’s children in glorious freedom from death and decay. For we know that all creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. – Romans 8:20-22 NLT

Next, Joel turns his attention to the priests. The loss caused by the locust infestation was going to make a very different impact on their lives. Joel describes the “grain offering and the drink offering” as being “cut off from the house of the Lord” (Joel 1:9 ESV). With the fields left stripped bare and the vines devoid of fruit, there would be no grain or wine to use in the sacrificial system. Like a gasoline-powered engine with no fuel to fill its tank, the temple rituals would grind to a halt, leaving the priests with nothing to do, but mourn.

The fields are ruined,
    the land is stripped bare.
The grain is destroyed,
    the grapes have shriveled,
    and the olive oil is gone. – Joel 1:10 NLT

No grain for the grain offering. No wine for the drink offering. No olive oil for the lamps. All the way back during the days of the exodus from Egypt, God had provided the people of Israel with instructions regarding the importance of grain, wine, and oil in the sacrificial system He had instituted.

“These are the sacrifices you are to offer regularly on the altar. Each day, offer two lambs that are a year old, one in the morning and the other in the evening. With one of them, offer two quarts of choice flour mixed with one quart of pure oil of pressed olives; also, offer one quart of wine as a liquid offering. Offer the other lamb in the evening, along with the same offerings of flour and wine as in the morning. It will be a pleasing aroma, a special gift presented to the Lord.” – Exodus 29:38-41 NLT

And notice what Moses says. These offerings of wine, oil, and grain were “a special gift presented to the Lord.” The Jews were to present these offerings to the Lord, in obedience to His commands, but also in appreciation for His goodness and grace. The apostle Paul used the drink offering as a way to describe his commitment to live his life in obedience to the cause of Christ.

Even if I am to be poured out as a drink offering upon the sacrificial offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with you all. – Philippians 2:17 ESV

Because of their sins, the people of Judah had brought the judgment of God on themselves. But their disobedience wasn’t going to impact them alone. It would rob God of the glory and honor He deserved.

Finally, Joel addresses the farmers and the vine-growers. With no grain or grapes to harvest, they would have plenty of time to weep and mourn. Joel uses the Hebrew word, yabesh, and it is translated as “ashamed.” But it can mean “to dry up” or “to wither away.” Joel seems to be saying that the barren fields and fruitless vines would act as a visual representation of the spiritual condition of God’s people. They were dried up and withered. They were spiritually fruitless and non-productive.

Don’t miss the picture Joel is painting. The farmers have no grain to harvest. The vine-growers have not grapes with which to produce wine. As a result, the drunks have no wine with which to get drunk. But the people have no wine or grain to offer up to God. Not only can the drunks not sin, but the people can’t effectively find forgiveness for their sins. And the priests, whose primary job was to act as “the ministers of the Lord,” would find themselves with no role to play. Rather than wearing robes of righteousness and presenting offerings of thankfulness to God, they would be wearing the sackcloth associated with mourning and weeping tears of sorrow and regret.

And Joel summarizes the situation, revealing that the destruction of the locusts had been all-encompassing in its scope.

The grapevines have dried up,
    and the fig trees have withered.
The pomegranate trees, palm trees, and apple trees—
    all the fruit trees—have dried up.
    And the people’s joy has dried up with them. – Joel 1:12 NLT

Virtually every living thing had been impacted by the judgment of God as manifested in the locust plague.  Grapes, figs, pomegranates, palms, apples, and all other fruit trees were destroyed. But, more significantly, so was the joy of the people. As the crops had withered, so had the joy of the people. The Hebrew word for “joy” that Joel used is sasown, and it could be used to speak of gladness, rejoicing, or “the oil of gladness“ that was used in times of celebration. The people of Judah had no reason to rejoice or celebrate. Their sins had brought the judgment of God. And while the primary target of God’s judgment had been nature itself, the people would feel the consequences.  And in the book of isaiah, the prophet speaks of “the year of the Lord’s favor” (Isaiah 61:2), describing a future day when God will restore joy and gladness to His rebellious people. 

…to grant to those who mourn in Zion—
    to give them a beautiful headdress instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
    the garment of praise instead of a faint spirit;
that they may be called oaks of righteousness,
    the planting of the Lord, that he may be glorified. – Isaiah 61:3 ESV

Sin always brings death and destruction. It always results in sorrow. Ultimately, it prevents mankind from giving God the glory and honor He deserves. And, as this passage so powerfully illustrates, it leaves the people of God spiritually barren and fruitless, dried up and devoid of joy.

English Standard Version (ESV) The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT) Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG) Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

 

God Is Not Done.

17 Is it not yet a very little while
    until Lebanon shall be turned into a fruitful field,
    and the fruitful field shall be regarded as a forest?
18 In that day the deaf shall hear
    the words of a book,
and out of their gloom and darkness
    the eyes of the blind shall see.
19 The meek shall obtain fresh joy in the Lord,
    and the poor among mankind shall exult in the Holy One of Israel.
20 For the ruthless shall come to nothing
    and the scoffer cease,
    and all who watch to do evil shall be cut off,
21 who by a word make a man out to be an offender,
    and lay a snare for him who reproves in the gate,
    and with an empty plea turn aside him who is in the right.

22 Therefore thus says the Lord, who redeemed Abraham, concerning the house of Jacob:

“Jacob shall no more be ashamed,
    no more shall his face grow pale.
23 For when he sees his children,
    the work of my hands, in his midst,
    they will sanctify my name;
they will sanctify the Holy One of Jacob
    and will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
24 And those who go astray in spirit will come to understanding,
    and those who murmur will accept instruction.” – Isaiah 29:17-24 ESV

The people of Judah were under the delusion that they could somehow fool God into believing that they were faithfully keeping His commands. They were observing all the annual rituals and celebrating each of the prescribed festivals on schedule, just as God had commanded. But they were just going through the motions. And, all the while, they were worshiping false gods and failing to pursue justice and righteousness. So, God described their so-called worship of Him as nothing more than lip-service. It was all an act designed to trick God into believing they were faithful and true. And, in their arrogance, they dared to say, “The Lord can’t see us. He doesn’t know what’s going on!” (Isaiah 29:15 NLT). But they were wrong.

God was the potter, and they were the clay. He knew exactly what was happening. He could even see into the deep recesses of their hearts, where the root of their problem was contained. And, while God was going to bring judgment against His people for their disobedience and unfaithfulness, Isaiah reveals that God had other plans for them as well. Their immediate fortunes would involve defeat at the hands of their enemies, the destruction of their city and the desecration of the temple. But God had more in store. He had plans for them of which they were totally unaware.

In just a very short time Lebanon will turn into an orchard, and the orchard will be considered a forest. – Isaiah 29:17 NET

This verse, while difficult for us to understand, would have been quite clear to Isaiah’s original audience. It speaks of a reversal of fortunes, a radical change in the status quo. In Isaiah’s day, Lebanon was renowned for its forests, but the day was coming when the trees once used for building ships, palaces, and siege engines would be replaced with fruit trees. The fame of Lebanon would no longer be its vast forests filled with stately cedar trees, but its orchards. A day was coming when things would be radically different.

Isaiah describes a day when the blind will see, and the deaf will hear. But there appears to be more to this than the restoration of sight to the blind and hearing to the deaf. Notice that Isaiah states, “the deaf will hear words read from a book” (Isaiah 29:18 NLT). Just a few verses earlier, God had mentioned a sealed book that contained insights into future events.

All the future events in this vision are like a sealed book to them. When you give it to those who can read, they will say, “We can’t read it because it is sealed.” When you give it to those who cannot read, they will say, “We don’t know how to read.” – Isaiah 29:11-12 NLT

The people of Judah had been unable to see what God had in store for them. And, it was because God had blinded their eyes to the truth. Even their prophets and seers were incapable of seeing the future plans of God.

Then go ahead and be blind.
    You are stupid, but not from wine!
    You stagger, but not from liquor!
For the Lord has poured out on you a spirit of deep sleep.
    He has closed the eyes of your prophets and visionaries. – Isaiah 29:9-10 NLT

But Isaiah informed them that a day was coming when God would open their eyes to see and their ears to hear. The unforeseen future would become a present reality. And the ones who will benefit from God’s goodness and graciousness on that day will be the lowly and humble.

The humble will be filled with fresh joy from the Lord.
    The poor will rejoice in the Holy One of Israel. – Isaiah 29:19 NLT

God has a particular disdain for the prideful and arrogant. There is no place in God’s kingdom for the self-made man, the individual who sees themselves as the master of their own fate. And the Scriptures are replete with God’s outlook on the proud.

Though the Lord is great, he cares for the humble,
    but he keeps his distance from the proud. – Psalm 138:6 NLT

Toward the scorners he is scornful,
    but to the humble he gives favor. – Proverbs 3:34 ESV

But those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted. – Matthew 23:12 NLT

The day is coming when there will be no place in God’s Kingdom for those whose lives are marked by scoffing, mocking, pride, and self-sufficiency. Like the cedars of Lebanon, they will be replaced with trees that produce fruit in keeping with God’s will. And when Isaiah shared this news, everyone in his audience knew the ones at whom his words were aimed.

The scoffer will be gone,
    the arrogant will disappear,
    and those who plot evil will be killed.
Those who convict the innocent
    by their false testimony will disappear.
A similar fate awaits those who use trickery to pervert justice
    and who tell lies to destroy the innocent. – Isaiah 29:20-21 NLT

God was going to hold the leaders of Judah responsible. They had misled the people and caused them to stray away from Him. As Isaiah stated in the last chapter, these men were like drunks, intoxicated by their own self-worth, and staggering around under the influence of false gods and faulty counsel.

Now, however, Israel is led by drunks
    who reel with wine and stagger with alcohol.
The priests and prophets stagger with alcohol
    and lose themselves in wine.
They reel when they see visions
    and stagger as they render decisions. – Isaiah 28:7 NLT

But, in spite of their lousy leadership, God was going to do something remarkable for His people.

“My people will no longer be ashamed
    or turn pale with fear.
For when they see their many children
    and all the blessings I have given them,
they will recognize the holiness of the Holy One of Jacob.
    They will stand in awe of the God of Israel.
Then the wayward will gain understanding,
    and complainers will accept instruction.” – Isaiah 29:22-24 NLT

In that future day, when God restores the fortunes of His people, they will see, they will recognize, the will stand in awe, they will gain understanding, and they will accept instruction. Things will be radically different. Not because they will have changed their minds, but because God will have changed their hearts. And the prophet Ezekiel records the words of God explaining just how He will accomplish this amazing transformation.

“Then I will sprinkle clean water on you, and you will be clean. Your filth will be washed away, and you will no longer worship idols. And I will give you a new heart, and I will put a new spirit in you. I will take out your stony, stubborn heart and give you a tender, responsive heart. And I will put my Spirit in you so that you will follow my decrees and be careful to obey my regulations. And you will live in Israel, the land I gave your ancestors long ago. You will be my people, and I will be your God.” – Ezekiel 36:25-28 NLT

You don’t have to be a biblical scholar to determine that this day has not yet arrived. The people of Judah and Israel have not yet experienced this amazing transformation. And while there are those who teach that this prophecy was fulfilled when Jesus appeared the first time and the gospel was taken to the nations, it is hard to ignore that this promise was delivered to the people of Israel. Yes, those of us who have experienced the life-transformative power of the Gospel message are the beneficiaries of God’s grace and mercy. But we cannot assume that God’s promises, made to the people of Judah and Israel have been transferred, wholesale, to the church.

Paul reminds us that we were grafted into the tree of Abraham.

So now you also receive the blessing God has promised Abraham and his children, sharing in the rich nourishment from the root of God’s special olive tree. – Romans 11:17 NLT

But we don’t replace the nation of Israel. We are simply grafted into the tree and are allowed to share in the promises God has made to them. And Paul goes on to explain that God has a future plan for His chosen people, Israel.

And if the people of Israel turn from their unbelief, they will be grafted in again, for God has the power to graft them back into the tree. You, by nature, were a branch cut from a wild olive tree. So if God was willing to do something contrary to nature by grafting you into his cultivated tree, he will be far more eager to graft the original branches back into the tree where they belong. – Romans 11:23-24 NLT

Yes, there have been many Jews who have come to faith in Christ over the centuries. But that does not appear to be what Paul is talking about. Like Isaiah and Ezekiel, he seems to be referring to a future time when God will do something entirely new and unique for His chosen people. Why? Because He is a faithful, covenant-keeping God.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Fruit of Righteousness.

20 For the bed is too short to stretch oneself on,
    and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in.
21 For the Lord will rise up as on Mount Perazim;
    as in the Valley of Gibeon he will be roused;
to do his deed—strange is his deed!
    and to work his work—alien is his work!
22 Now therefore do not scoff,
    lest your bonds be made strong;
for I have heard a decree of destruction
    from the Lord God of hosts against the whole land.

23 Give ear, and hear my voice;
    give attention, and hear my speech.
24 Does he who plows for sowing plow continually?
    Does he continually open and harrow his ground?
25 When he has leveled its surface,
    does he not scatter dill, sow cumin,
and put in wheat in rows
    and barley in its proper place,
    and emmer as the border?
26 For he is rightly instructed;
    his God teaches him.

27 Dill is not threshed with a threshing sledge,
    nor is a cart wheel rolled over cumin,
but dill is beaten out with a stick,
    and cumin with a rod.
28 Does one crush grain for bread?
    No, he does not thresh it forever;
when he drives his cart wheel over it
    with his horses, he does not crush it.
29 This also comes from the Lord of hosts;
    he is wonderful in counsel
    and excellent in wisdom. – Isaiah 28:15-29 ESV

The nation of Judah, under the leadership of their scoffing leaders, had chosen to make an alliance with Egypt. In the face of God’s warnings of judgment and the eminent arrival of the Assyrians, they had decided to seek help from a foreign power rather than repent and return to God. And they had convinced themselves that their decision was going to provide them with all the protection they needed.

“…when the overwhelming whip passes through it will not come to us.” – Isaiah 28:15 ESV

But Isaiah warns them that their arrogant decision was not going to produce the results for which they were hoping. In a sense, Isaiah paraphrases a well-known maxim: You’ve made your bed, now lie in it. They were going to have to endure the consequences of their poor choice. And Isaiah put it in terms that anyone could understand.

“…the bed is too short to stretch oneself on,
    and the covering too narrow to wrap oneself in.” – Isaiah 28:20 ESV

A short bed with insufficient covers was going to result in a sleepless, uncomfortable night. No rest. No escape from the weariness. Their alliance with Egypt was going to prove inadequate when the judgment of God came against them. In fact, Isaiah describes their fall as coming by the hand of God Almighty, and the manner by which it came would be “strange” and “alien.” He compares the coming judgment of God with two remarkable events in Israelite history. One took place immediately after David had become the king. Upon hearing the news of David’s anointing as king, the Philistines determined to attack him early in his reign, before he had the opportunity to win the allegiance of all the tribes of Israel. But David sought God’s counsel, and was told, “Go up, for I will certainly give the Philistines into your hand” (2 Samuel 5:19 ESV). David did as the Lord commanded.

And David came to Baal-perazim, and David defeated them there. And he said, “The Lord has broken through my enemies before me like a breaking flood.” Therefore the name of that place is called Baal-perazim. And the Philistines left their idols there, and David and his men carried them away. – 2 Samuel 5:20-21 ESV

The second historic event that Isaiah references is one that took place in the early days of the Israelite’s conquering of the land of Canaan. They had just defeated Jericho and Ai, and had made a peace treaty with the people of Gibeon. When Adoni-zedek king of Jerusalem got wind of all this, he formed an alliance with four other kings, and made plans to march against Gibeon. The Gibeonites called on Joshua and the people of Israel to come to their defense. And Joshua, like David, sought the will of God, and was told, “Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you” (Joshua 10:8 ESV).

Joshua and the Israelites came up against the forces of the five allied kings and routed them. But the text tells us that, “the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel” (Joshua 10:10 ESV). When the enemy panicked a fled, Joshua and his forces gave chase.

And as they fled before Israel, while they were going down the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them as far as Azekah, and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword. – Joshua 10:11 ESV

And if that was not strange enough, the text tells us that Joshua asked God to halt the sun in the sky so that they might have more time to defeat the enemy, and it states, “the sun stood still, and the moon stopped, until the nation took vengeance on their enemies” (Joshua 10:13 ESV). And just so we don’t miss the significance of this remarkable event, the text tells us, “There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man, for the Lord fought for Israel” (Joshua 10:14 ESV).

So, why did Isaiah bother to bring up these two historic occasions? What was his point? First of all, these two stories would have been highly familiar to Isaiah’s audience. At the very mention of Mount Perazim and the Valley of Gibeon, they would have known the facts associated with these two locales. As Hebrews, they would have loved recounting these two stories of Israel’s defeat of their enemies. But now, God was telling them that the tables were going to be turned. The strange and alien works of God were going to be used against them.

So, Isaiah warns the scoffers to stop scoffing or their judgment will be even worse. He begs them to listen to what he has to say.

“Give ear, and hear my voice; give attention, and hear my speech.” – Isaiah 28:23 ESV

Their fate depends upon it. They can continue to reject the words of Isaiah and face inevitable destruction, or they could repent and be given a milder punishment from the hand of God. They were going to suffer God’s discipline either way, but now it was matter of intensity. So, Isaiah provides them with two real-life illustrations to convince them to heed his warnings.

The first has to do with plowing and sowing. A farmer operates based a plan. There is a time to plow and there is a time to sow. He doesn’t just keep plowing indefinitely. When the soil has been prepared, he sows the seeds, each at their appropriate time and manner. A farmer has the innate understanding to do the right thing at the right time in order to get the right results. Why? Because God has instilled it in him.

The farmer knows just what to do,
    for God has given him understanding. – Isaiah 28:26 NLT

And when it is time to reap what he has sown, the farmer understands that each plant must be reaped in the right way. By listening to God, the farmer is able to enjoy the fruit of his labor. But if he rejects God’s wisdom, he will end up destroying the potential blessings from the crops he has planted and cultivated. Following God’s divine plan always results in blessing. Choosing to do things our own way will always produce less-than-satisfactory outcomes. And Isaiah reminds his audience, “The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is a wonderful teacher, and he gives the farmer great wisdom” (Isaiah 28:20 NLT).

So, why will they not listen to God’s words of wisdom spoken through His prophet? Why will they continue to reject the blessings God wants to bestow on them by refusing to follow His instructions? They will end up reaping what they sow. And Isaiah longs for them to listen to what he has to say so that they might experience the blessings of God and not the curses.

In the same way that a farmer plows so that he can plant, and sows so that he might one day reap, God had prepared the people of Israel to produce the fruit of righteousness. He had chosen them and planted them in the soil of Canaan, with the intention that they would produce abundant fruit and fill the land with their product of their relationship with Him. And one of the things the people of Judah failed to recognize was that, in order for them to be fruitful, God would employ cultivating and pruning. Like a faithful farmer, He would do whatever was necessary to get the most out of His crops. And just as a wise farmer knows what threshing method to use on each plant, God knows exactly what the people of Judah need in order to produce the kind of fruit He was expecting.

They may not like His ways. They might see them as alien and strange. But God knew what He was doing. He was intimately familiar with His people and knew what it would take for them to yield the fruit of righteousness. As God had made clear earlier in this very same passage, He was looking for justice and righteousness from His people.

I will test you with the measuring line of justice
    and the plumb line of righteousness. – Isaiah 28:17 NLT

And later on in this book, Isaiah will write concerning a future day when justice and righteousness will be found in the land of Canaan.

Justice will rule in the wilderness
    and righteousness in the fertile field.
And this righteousness will bring peace.
    Yes, it will bring quietness and confidence forever. – Isaiah 32:16-17 NLT

God will one day reap the fruit for which He has sown. He will harvest the bounty He has intended all along. And the cultivating and pruning of His people was part of the divine process. He has the end in mind. He is focused on the fruit and the harvest.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)
Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

What Will God Find?

1 Let me sing for my beloved
    my love song concerning his vineyard:
My beloved had a vineyard
    on a very fertile hill.
He dug it and cleared it of stones,
    and planted it with choice vines;
he built a watchtower in the midst of it,
    and hewed out a wine vat in it;
and he looked for it to yield grapes,
    but it yielded wild grapes.

And now, O inhabitants of Jerusalem
    and men of Judah,
judge between me and my vineyard.
What more was there to do for my vineyard,
    that I have not done in it?
When I looked for it to yield grapes,
    why did it yield wild grapes?

And now I will tell you
    what I will do to my vineyard.
I will remove its hedge,
    and it shall be devoured;
I will break down its wall,
    and it shall be trampled down.
I will make it a waste;
    it shall not be pruned or hoed,
    and briers and thorns shall grow up;
I will also command the clouds
    that they rain no rain upon it.

For the vineyard of the Lord of hosts
    is the house of Israel,
and the men of Judah
    are his pleasant planting;
and he looked for justice,
    but behold, bloodshed;
for righteousness,
    but behold, an outcry! – Isaiah 5:1-7 ESV

With the opening of chapter five, Isaiah takes a slightly unusual tact. He describes God as his lover. This song, as it would have appeared to Isaiah’s original audience, starts off innocently enough. It simply appears as if Isaiah is describing God in affectionate terms, like a bride describing her groom or a wife, her husband. Isaiah portrays God as having planted a vineyard. This required great effort on His part, including the preparation of the soil by removing any and all rocks, as well as the tilling of the ground to make it ready for the planting of the vines. The hill on which God planted His vineyard was fertile ground, perfect for bearing choice grapes.

And God, fully expecting an abundant harvest, built a watchtower to protect His crops and a winepress in which to process the grapes. But then, the song takes an unexpected twist. Instead of yielding grapes suitable for making fine wine, the vineyard produced wild, sour-tasting grapes. The fruit was not what God had planned or expected. Something had gone terribly wrong.

Suddenly, the voice of the speaker switches from Isaiah to God Himself. He personally addresses the people of Jerusalem and Judah, asking them to make a judgment on the scenario Isaiah had just described. What else could God have done? He had taken all the appropriate steps and done all the right things to ensure a positive outcome. But rather than good grapes, the vineyard had delivered worthless sour grapes. It had produced fruit, but the wrong kind of fruit. And God asks the people of Judah. “Why?”

But before they can answer, God tells them what He is going to do to His precious vineyard.

“I will tear down its hedges
    and let it be destroyed.
I will break down its walls
    and let the animals trample it.
I will make it a wild place
    where the vines are not pruned and the ground is not hoed,
    a place overgrown with briers and thorns.
I will command the clouds
    to drop no rain on it.” – Isaiah 5:5-6 NLT

God will personally punish His vineyard, destroying the protective walls He had erected. Wild animals, once kept at bay by God, will have full access to the vineyard, trampling it down and treating it with disdain. Once a cultivated garden, it will become a wild and uninviting place, full of wild vines producing even more sour grapes, surrounded by briers and thorns, and devoid of the rainwater that grapes require.

As suddenly as before, the voice of the speaker switches back to Isaiah. Just in case his audience has missed the point of his song, he lets them know that they are the vineyard of God. They were to have been “his pleasant planting” but had turned out to be nothing but sour grapes, totally worthless for producing wine.

The fruit they had produced, while plentiful, was ineffectual. It had no redeeming value and was good for nothing. The prophet Ezekiel painted a bleak picture of a vine that failed to produce proper fruit.

The word of the Lord came to me: “Son of man, of all the woody branches among the trees of the forest, what happens to the wood of the vine? Can wood be taken from it to make anything useful? Or can anyone make a peg from it to hang things on? No! It is thrown in the fire for fuel; when the fire has burned up both ends of it and it is charred in the middle, will it be useful for anything? Indeed! If it was not made into anything useful when it was whole, how much less can it be made into anything when the fire has burned it up and it is charred?” – Ezekiel 15:1-5 NLT

The wood of a vine has only one purpose and value: To produce grapes. Beyond that, it has no worth. It doesn’t even make a good fire, because it burns too quickly to do any good. And this was God’s assessment of Judah. He had done everything He could do to make them fruitful and useful. He had done all the work and all they had to do was yield the right kind of fruit. But instead, they had produced sour grapes.

Asaph penned a psalm that reflects God’s treatment of His vineyard.

You uprooted a vine from Egypt;
you drove out nations and transplanted it.
You cleared the ground for it;
it took root,
and filled the land.
The mountains were covered by its shadow,
the highest cedars by its branches.
Its branches reached the Mediterranean Sea,
and its shoots the Euphrates River.
Why did you break down its walls,
so that all who pass by pluck its fruit? – Psalm 80:8-12 NLT

God had done great things for the people of Israel. He had chosen them and made of them a great nation. He had rescued them out of slavery in Egypt and transplanted them to the fertile land of promise. He had provided them with judges, prophets, and kings. He had given them His law to let them know what righteous living looked like and the sacrificial system to provide atonement when they failed to live up to that law. He had made them prolific and powerful. He had showered them with His favor and had extended to them His mercy – time and time again. But they had proven unfaithful and unsuccessful at producing the kind of fruit He expected.

While they should have produced lives marked by justice, they were better known for their oppressive and unjust treatment of one another. And, as Isaiah has already made clear to them, God will hold the leaders of Judah responsible.

The Lord will enter into judgment
    with the elders and princes of his people:
“It is you who have devoured the vineyard,
    the spoil of the poor is in your houses.” – Isiah 3:14 ESV

God demanded justice and righteousness of His people and it began with the leadership. Justice has to do with meting out the right sentence in a judicial case. It is assuring that the right judgment is made. Later on, in this same chapter, Isaiah will point out what injustice looks like:

What sorrow for those who say that evil is good and good is evil, that dark is light and light is dark, that bitter is sweet and sweet is bitter. – Isaiah 5:20 NLT

Righteousness has to do with behavior. It is about doing the right thing – that which God demands. Isaiah will later describe a righteous person as:

The one who lives uprightly
and speaks honestly;
the one who refuses to profit from oppressive measures
and rejects a bribe;
the one who does not plot violent crimes
and does not seek to harm others… – Isaiah 33:15 NLT

Right judgments and right behavior. That was the kind of fruit God expected, but instead He had found His people producing nothing more than sour grapes. Their judgments were bitter and more like wild grapes than the cultivated fruit of God. Their lives were marked by ungodly behavior rather than the sweet-tasting, life-producing wine that results from God’s careful craftsmanship.

We all produce fruit. But the question is whether the fruit we produce is the byproduct of God’s gracious cultivation or the wild grapes of a flesh-controlled life.

For the flesh has desires that are opposed to the Spirit, and the Spirit has desires that are opposed to the flesh, for these are in opposition to each other, so that you cannot do what you want. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity, depravity, idolatry, sorcery, hostilities, strife, jealousy, outbursts of anger, selfish rivalries, dissensions, factions, envying, murder, drunkenness, carousing, and similar things. I am warning you, as I had warned you before: Those who practice such things will not inherit the kingdom of God!

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law. – Galatians 5:17-23 NLT

English Standard Version (ESV)

The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

No Faith. No Fruit.

18 In the morning, as he was returning to the city, he became hungry. 19 And seeing a fig tree by the wayside, he went to it and found nothing on it but only leaves. And he said to it, “May no fruit ever come from you again!” And the fig tree withered at once.

20 When the disciples saw it, they marveled, saying, “How did the fig tree wither at once?” 21 And Jesus answered them, “Truly, I say to you, if you have faith and do not doubt, you will not only do what has been done to the fig tree, but even if you say to this mountain, ‘Be taken up and thrown into the sea,’ it will happen. 22 And whatever you ask in prayer, you will receive, if you have faith.” 

23 And when he entered the temple, the chief priests and the elders of the people came up to him as he was teaching, and said, “By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?” 24 Jesus answered them, “I also will ask you one question, and if you tell me the answer, then I also will tell you by what authority I do these things. 25 The baptism of John, from where did it come? From heaven or from man?” And they discussed it among themselves, saying, “If we say, ‘From heaven,’ he will say to us, ‘Why then did you not believe him?’ 26 But if we say, ‘From man,’ we are afraid of the crowd, for they all hold that John was a prophet.” 27 So they answered Jesus, “We do not know.” And he said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I do these things.” –  Matthew 21:18-27 ESV

FigOne of the reasons it is important to read each of the gospels simultaneously and in what is called a “harmony” is that it provides you with a much more accurate timeline of the events. And when reading about Jesus’ cursing of the fig tree and His subsequent statements in the temple, it is extremely important to get a 3D view of those events from the three synoptic gospels: Matthew, Mark and Luke.

Mark tells us that, after entering Jerusalem on Monday to the shouts of Hosanna and the seeming acceptance of the crowds, Jesus went to the Temple and, “after looking around carefully at everything, he left because it was late in the afternoon. Then he returned to Bethany with the twelve disciples” (Mark 11:11 NLT). Bethany would be their home base during what is called the Passion Week. They would return there each evening and spend the night. Then each morning they would make their way back to the eastern gate of the city of Jerusalem, passing through the Mount of Olives along the way. It would have been about at two-mile walk.

On Tuesday morning Jesus and the disciples returned to Jerusalem and along the way they passed a fig tree. Jesus “noticed a fig tree in full leaf and little way off, so the went over to see if he could find any figs. But there were only leave because it was too early in the season for fruit. Then Jesus said to the tree, ‘May no one eat your fruit again!’ And the disciples heard him say it” (Mark 11:12-14 NLT).  This sequence of events is important if we are to understand what Jesus does next. Jesus curses the fig tree first. Then He and the disciples made their way to the Temple where He “entered the Temple and began to drive out the people buying and selling animals for sacrifice. He knocked over the tables of the money changers and the chairs of those selling doves, and he stopped everyone from using the Temple as a marketplace” (Mark 11:15-16 NLT). If you take these two events out of order or try to deal with them independently, they become difficult to understand. The cursing of the fig tree makes sense only if you keep in mind what Jesus did next.

When Jesus arrived in Jerusalem that Monday and took a look around the Temple grounds, He saw what had become of His Father’s house. He assessed the situation and then left for the day. On the way back in the next morning, He sees the barren fig tree and curses it. Matthew tells us that Jesus was hungry and when He goes to find fruit on the tree, there is none. But His cursing of the tree is not done out of anger or vindictiveness. This was not some petty power display done on Jesus’ part. This was a visible lesson being taught to the disciples. One of the important points in the story is that the tree was in full bloom. It was a healthy, visibly vibrant tree that had all the appearances of fruitfulness. But there was none. Think back on what John the Baptist had to say to the Jewish religious leaders, “But when he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit in keeping with repentance’” (Matthew 3:7-8 ESV).

Now we could do a lengthy study on the fruit-bearing properties of the Middle Eastern fig tree, but that is not the point of the story. There are commentators who try to explain that the fig tree in that part of the world has fruit on it year found. Others say that, if it was in leaf, it should have had fruit. But all we know from the gospel accounts is that IT HAD NO FRUIT. Mark tells us it was not the season for fruit, and yet, Jesus hungered for fruit. He came expecting to see and enjoy fruit. BUT THE TREE WAS EMPTY OF FRUIT. It was appealing to the eye, but failed to meet Jesus’ expectations. As usual, this event had much to do with Jesus’ perception of the religious leaders of His day. Jesus had accused the Pharisees of doing everything for show. “They do all their deeds to be seen by others” (Matthew 23:5 ESV). But this problem had become a national epidemic. To all appearances, the nation of Israel had all the trappings of religious fervor and faith. They had a place of worship – the Temple. They practiced the religious requirements as handed down by God – Passover, Pentecost, Feast of Tabernacles, the Law, etc. They had a priesthood. They made regular sacrifices to atone for their sins. In his book, The Words and Works of Jesus, J. Dwight Pentecost writes, “Like the leafy tree, they had given external evidence of being fruitful but on examination they were seen to be barren and fruitless. Therefore judgment had to come on that generation.”

Mark tells us that it was the next morning, as they passed by the fig tree again, that the disciples noticed it was withered from the roots up. “Peter remembered what Jesus had said to the tree on the previous day and exclaimed, ‘Look, Rabbi! The fig tree you cursed has withered and died!’” (Mark 11:20-21 NLT). So what’s the point? The cursing of the fig tree was a statement against the spiritual hypocrisy and religious formalism of the Pharisees. The fig tree had all that was required for fruitfulness, but no fruit. Jesus uses the moment to teach the disciples an important lesson on faith, and He makes the main point right at the outset: “Have faith in God” (Mark 11:22 NLT).

No faith. No Fruit.

It was the lack of faith in God that resulted in Israel’s barrenness. They were not experiencing the power of God in their lives (Mark 11:23). They were not enjoying answered prayers from God (Mark 11:24). Their prayers were hindered by hatred and unforgiveness (Mark 11:25). Over in the book of John we read the words of Jesus, “Yes, I am the vine; you are the branches. Those who remain in my, and I in them, will produce much fruit. For apart from me you can nothing. Anyone who does not remain in me is thrown away like a useless branch and withers. Such branches are gathered into a pile to be burned. But if you remain in me and my words remain in you, you may ask for anything you want, and it will be granted! When you produce much fruit, you are my true disciples. This brings great glory to my Father” (John 15:5-8 NLT). Fruitfulness and faith go hand in hand.

When Jesus cleansed the Temple, He shouted, “The Scriptures declare, ‘My Temple will be called a house of prayer for all nations,’ but you have turned it into a den of thieves’” (Mark 11:17 NLT). They were stealing glory from God. They were abusing the people of God. They were more obsessed about financial gain than holiness. They were more interested in fleecing the people than faithfulness. But God’s house was for all people. Jesus had come for all men. Salvation was for all who would believe. They had taken the court of the Gentiles, the only place non-Jews could worship, and had turned it into a three-ring circus. It was here they had set up their system of graft and greed, disguised as religion. But at the end of the day, Jesus’ cleansing of the Temple was all about obedience and faithfulness. It was about commitment to the Lord and not religiosity and ritual. Jesus compared them to their rebellious ancestors and concludes that NOTHING HAD CHANGED! The Temple was not going to save them. It was the God of the Temple who was their only hope. It was the people who God had called to His Temple who were important.

Over in his letter to the Corinthian believers, Paul reminds us, “Don’t you realize that all of you together are the temple of God and that the Spirit of God lives in you? God will destroy anyone who destroys this temple. For God’s temple is holy, and you are that temple” (1 Corinthians 3:16-17 NLT). Jesus is still looking for fruitfulness from His people. That fruitfulness is only possible through faith in God. But those who have faith in God and believe in the Son of God will experience the fruit of the Spirit and the power of God in their lives.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

The Mystery Explained.

18 “Hear then the parable of the sower: 19 When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what has been sown in his heart. This is what was sown along the path. 20 As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, 21 yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away. 22 As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful. 23 As for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it. He indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” – Matthew 13:18-23 ESV

The disciples had asked Jesus why He spoke to the crowds using parables. In a sense, they were wondering why He didn’t just say what He had to say. It’s likely that they found the parables just as difficult to understand as anyone else. So, He told them, “To you it has been given to know the secrets of the kingdom of heaven, but to them it has not been given” (Matthew 13:11 ESV). But it’s obvious that they didn’t know what the parable meant, because Jesus went on to explain its meaning to them, something He did not do for the people in the crowd. He was treating the disciples differently, in keeping with His statement: “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance…” (Matthew 3:12 ESV). The disciples had a relationship with Jesus, because they believed Him to be the Messiah. They had each left all to follow Him and, while they did not fully grasp the significance of who He was and what He had come to do, they eagerly listened to what He had to say. Which is what led Jesus to say of them, “blessed are your eyes, for they see, and your ears, for they hear” (Matthew 13:16 ESV).

And it was their child-like faith in Him that prompted Jesus to explain the secret of the parable to them. The story was simple, relating the efforts of a single sower, who sowed one kind of seed that fell on four different types of soil. And the outcome of the sower’s efforts were mixed. Some of the seeds were eaten by birds, never having time to germinate. Some seed fell on rocky ground and, lacking depth of soil, they sprang up but quickly withered. Other seeds fell among thorns and, while these seeds were able to germinate and grow, they were unable to survive within the harsh environment. Finally, a portion of the seeds actually made it into good soil where they not only survived, but thrived, producing an abundance of grain.

But what’s the point? That’s what the disciples wanted to know. They could fully understand the various scenarios Jesus described, but had no idea what it had to do with the “secrets of the kingdom of heaven.” So, Jesus explained the meaning behind the story.

The seed represented the word about the kingdom. If you recall, both John the Baptist and Jesus had proclaimed, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.” They were referring to the kingdom of the Messiah, the one of whom the Old Testament Scriptures prophesied and God had promised to send. And Jesus was the fulfillment of those prophecies and the promise. He was the long-awaited Messiah. But He had not come to set up an earthly kingdom. At least, not yet. As Messiah, He had not come to save the Jews from the tyranny and taxation of the Romans, but from slavery to sin. His arrival was not to mark their release from Roman oppression, but from the condemnation of death they all faced as a result of their rebellion against God.

But that message, while widely broadcast to any and all who would hear it, would not find everyone receptive to it. What’s interesting in the story is that the sower seemed to know that his seed was falling in places where it would prove unfruitful. He didn’t seem to worry about the outcome as much as he did about getting the seed distributed. The apostle Paul understood the significance of this thought.

After all, who is Apollos? Who is Paul? We are only God’s servants through whom you believed the Good News. Each of us did the work the Lord gave us. I planted the seed in your hearts, and Apollos watered it, but it was God who made it grow. It’s not important who does the planting, or who does the watering. What’s important is that God makes the seed grow. – 1 Corinthians 3:5-7 NLT

The sower simply sowed and left the result up to God. And the seed, or the message of the kingdom, made its way to each scenario, but with varying degrees of success. There was nothing wrong with the seed, but the receptivity of the four types of soil played a significant role in the ultimate success of the sower’s efforts.

The seed that fell along the path was quickly devoured by bird. Jesus compares the birds with Satan, who snatches up the message of the kingdom before it can take root in the heart of those who hear it. The apostle Paul describes Satan’s efforts in stark terms:

Satan, who is the god of this world, has blinded the minds of those who don’t believe. They are unable to see the glorious light of the Good News. They don’t understand this message about the glory of Christ, who is the exact likeness of God. – 2 Corinthians 4:4 NLT

The seed that fell on the rocky soil represents those who hear the message and respond favorably to its content, but their enthusiasm is short-lived. As soon as they face the first sign of persecution because of the message, they bail. The Greek word translated as “falls away” can also mean “stumbles.” These people find it difficult to maintain their walk with Christ because they find the trials and tribulations that come with the message too difficult to bear.

The third scenarios involves seed that fell among thorns. Once again, there appears to be a brief period of receptivity. The seed take root, but there is no fruit produced, because “the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word” (Matthew 13:22 ESV). These people hear the message, respond to it favorably, but because of their love affair with the world, they never experience the fruitfulness the message was intended to produce. Jesus promised to give abundant life (John 10:10). But these people never see it in their lives because they allow worldly things to choke out the message before it’s had time to produce fruit.

Finally, there are some who hear the message and allow it to take root in the soil of their lives. They are receptive to it and fully embracing of it. They hear and believe. They listen and receive. And their lives produce fruit because the allow the message to take root. The degree of their fruitfulness varies, but that is the work of God.

The primary point of the parable has to do with receptivity to the message of the kingdom. That is why Jesus had said, “For to the one who has, more will be given, and he will have an abundance” (Matthew 13:12 ESV). Those who receive the message of the kingdom and allow it to take root in their lives, will see their lives produce abundant fruit. The seed, or the message, will end up multiplying into far more than they could have ever imagined. Their willing receptivity to the message of Jesus Christ and His kingdom will result in abundant life and a growing understanding of all that He has come to offer.

The Pharisees and scribes had refused the message. The majority of the Jews who made up the crowds that flocked to hear Jesus speak and watch Him perform miracles, would also refuse the message. But there were some who, like the good soil in the parable, would respond favorably, allowing the seed of the Gospel to take root in their lives. And they would experience the joy of watching God produce His fruit in their lives.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Fake Sheep With False Motives.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.– Matthew 7:15-20 ESV

Jesus has just discussed the narrow gate and the difficult path that provides access to the kingdom of God. And the numbers of those who choose that way are going to be few. But because the kingdom way is not a literal path, but a spiritual one, it will sometimes be difficult to tell who is actually walking along beside you. So, Jesus warns that there will be fakers and posers, even dangerous charlatans, whose sole motive will be to deceive and destroy those who have been approved by God. In the gospel of John, we have recorded the words of Jesus reiterating His claim to be the door or the narrow gate. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9 ESV). Not only had there been false Messiahs before Jesus arrived, there had been deceptive religious leaders who offered up a different form of salvation. And Jesus makes it clear that all these individuals had been motivated by Satan himself. Whether they realized it or not, these people were driven by demonic desires, not divine ones. Jesus went on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Those who preach another form of salvation or a different means of achieving a right standing with God are essentially deceivers who will end up destroying all those who listen to their lies.

And here in His sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against “false prophets” who will attempt to disguise themselves as sheep in order to infiltrate the ranks of those who have been approved by God. They will appear to be fellow sojourners on the kingdom way, but will actually be out to do harm, not good. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves, hungry predators with one thing in mind, feeding their own insatiable desires. So, how are we supposed to spot these dangerous deceivers? If they look like us and appear to be on the same path we are traveling, how will we be able to expose them? Jesus gives us a very simple way of knowing whether our fellow travelers are legitimate or not: Their fruit. He says, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT). But wait a minute! If they are out to deceive, won’t they be disguising their true motives by emulating the right kind of behavior? Won’t they be smart enough to act just like sheep? The answer is, yes. Jesus will even address that issue in the very next verses. These people will act the part, but the key will be whether their fruit is in keeping with the will of God. We must always keep in mind that God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates our behavior. But we don’t have that capacity. We aren’t able to see into the heart of another human being. So, what are we to do? How are we to discern whether someone is truly a believer? Again, Jesus would tell us to look at their fruit. What is in the heart will ultimately show up as fruit. Jesus makes that perfectly clear later on in the book of Matthew.

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” – Matthew 15:19 NLT

And here, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus comapres these false prophets to thorn bushes, thistles and diseased trees. They are incapable of producing true fruit. And the fruit we should be looking for is described for us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… – Galatians 5:22-23 ESV

Thorn bushes don’t produce grapes. Thistles don’t bear figs. And you don’t get healthy fruit from a diseased tree. Ultimately, their true nature will become evident. The true condition of their hearts will be exposed. And in the book of Jeremiah, we read how God describes those who would deceive His children.

“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
    filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
    They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
    ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
    they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT

As we walk the Kingdom path, there will always be those who appear to be with us but who will actually be against us. They will attempt to deceive and distract us. They will be the ones who question why we take things so seriously and why we worry so much about spirituality. They will claim to love the Lord as much as we do, but will display a love for the world that reveals their true nature. Their commitment to the will of God will be minimal. Their reliance upon the Word of God will be spotty at best. They will do good deeds, but for the wrong motives. And, ultimately, their influence on the church will be harmful, not helpful. In the book of Jude, we read his warnings to a local congregation regarding these false prophets or teachers who had infiltrated their fellowship.

Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. – Jude 1:3-4 NLT

Jude goes on to describe their behavior in less-than-flattering terms:

In the same way, these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he describes their sad state and even worse outcome:

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! – Jude 1:10-11 NLT

Jesus has already told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14 ESV). The Kingdom life is not an easy one. It will have its moments of trials and difficulties. It will have its dark valleys. Even in the famous 23rd Psalm, we read David’s words describing the life of those who are led by the Shepherd:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV

It will not always be green pastures and still waters. There will be moments of sadness and seasons of despair. But God will be with us, guiding and comforting us. And Jesus would have us know that there will be so-called companions on our life’s journey who will not be what they appear. So, we must be discerning. Jesus would later give His disciples some invaluable advice as He prepared to send them out on their own.

Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. – Matthew 10:16 NLT

When all is said and done, the only way we have of discerning the true nature of those who claim to be fellow followers of Christ is to look at their fruit. And that means we must judge their behavior. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to sin or refuse to evaluate the true intentions of those who claim to be on our side. The risks are too great. The dangers are real. We must always remember that the thief intends to steal, kill and destroy. The false sheep have false motives. The fake followers have sinister plans. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray. They will try to undermine the gospel. They will minimize the will of God and replace it with the will of men. So, we must constantly evaluate one another based on the fruit of the Spirit. This kind of fruit can’t be replicated. It can be mimicked, but not manufactured. It can be faked, but not fabricated. And eventually, fake fruit will be exposed as what it is: unhealthy and undesirable.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson

Looks Can Be Deceiving.

“Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits.– Matthew 7:15-20 ESV

Jesus has just discussed the narrow gate and the difficult path that provides access to the kingdom of God. And the number of those who choose that way is going to be few. But because the kingdom way is not a literal path, but a spiritual one, it will sometimes be difficult to tell who is actually walking along beside you. So, Jesus warns that there will be fakers and posers, even dangerous charlatans, whose sole motive will be to deceive and destroy those who have been approved by God. In the gospel of John, we have recorded the words of Jesus reiterating His claim to be the door, that narrow gate. He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, I am the door of the sheep. All who came before me are thieves and robbers, but the sheep did not listen to them. I am the door. If anyone enters by me, he will be saved and will go in and out and find pasture” (John 10:7-9 ESV). Not only had there been false Messiahs before Jesus arrived, there had been deceptive religious leaders who were preaching a different form of salvation. And Jesus makes it clear that all these individuals were motivated by Satan himself. Whether they realized it or not, these people were driven by demonic desires, not divine ones. Jesus went on to say, “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10 ESV). Those who preach another form of salvation or a different means of achieving a right standing with God are essentially deceivers who will end up destroying all those who listen to their lies.

And here in His sermon on the mount, Jesus warns against “false prophets” who will attempt to disguise themselves as sheep in order to infiltrate the ranks of those who have been approved by God. They will appear to be fellow sojourners on the kingdom way, but will actually be out to do harm, not good. Jesus describes them as ravenous wolves, hungry predators with one thing in mind, feeding their own insatiable desires. So, how are we supposed to spot these dangerous deceivers? If they look like us and appear to be on the same path we are traveling, how will we be able to expose them? Jesus gives us a very simple way of knowing whether our fellow travelers are legitimate or not: Their fruit. He says, “You can identify them by their fruit, that is, by the way they act” (Matthew 7:16 NLT). But wait a minute! If they are out to deceive, won’t they be disguising their true motives by emulating the right kind of behavior? Won’t they be smart enough to act just like sheep? The answer is, yes. Jesus will even address that issue in the very next verses. These people will act the part, but the key will be whether their fruit is in keeping with the will of God. We have to always keep in mind that God sees our hearts. He knows what motivates our behavior. But we don’t have that capacity. We aren’t able to see into one another’s hearts. So, what are we to do? How are we to discern whether someone is truly a believer? Again, Jesus would tell us to look at their fruit. What is in the heart will ultimately show up as fruit. Jesus makes that perfectly clear later on in the book of Matthew.

“For from the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, all sexual immorality, theft, lying, and slander.” – Matthew 15:19 NLT

And here, in His sermon on the mount, Jesus will compare these false prophets to thorn bushes, thistles and diseased trees. They are incapable of producing true fruit. And the fruit we should be looking for is described for us in Paul’s letter to the Galatians:

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control… – Galatians 5:22-23 ESV

Thorn bushes don’t produce grapes. Thistles don’t bear figs. And you don’t get healthy fruit from a diseased tree. Ultimately, their true nature will become evident. The true condition of their hearts will be exposed. And in the book of Jeremiah, we read how God describes those who would deceive His children.

“Do not listen to these prophets when they prophesy to you,
    filling you with futile hopes.
They are making up everything they say.
    They do not speak for the Lord!
They keep saying to those who despise my word,
    ‘Don’t worry! The Lord says you will have peace!’
And to those who stubbornly follow their own desires,
    they say, ‘No harm will come your way!’” – Jeremiah 23:16-17 NLT

There will always be those who appear to be with us on the kingdom path, who will actually be against us. They will attempt to deceive and distract us. They will be the ones who question why we take things so seriously and worry so much about being spiritual. They will claim to love the Lord as much as we do, but will display a love for the world that reveals their true nature. Their commitment to the will of God will be minimal. Their reliance upon the Word of God will be spotty at best. They will do good deeds, but for the wrong motives. And, ultimately, their influence on the church will be harmful, not helpful. In the book of Jude, we read his warnings to a local congregation regarding these false prophets or teachers who had infiltrated their local fellowship.

Dear friends, I had been eagerly planning to write to you about the salvation we all share. But now I find that I must write about something else, urging you to defend the faith that God has entrusted once for all time to his holy people. I say this because some ungodly people have wormed their way into your churches, saying that God’s marvelous grace allows us to live immoral lives. – Jude 1:3-4 NLT

Jude goes on to describe their behavior in less-than-flattering terms:

In the same way, these people—who claim authority from their dreams—live immoral lives, defy authority, and scoff at supernatural beings. – Jude 1:8 NLT

And as if that wasn’t bad enough, he describes their sad state and even worse outcome:

But these people scoff at things they do not understand. Like unthinking animals, they do whatever their instincts tell them, and so they bring about their own destruction. What sorrow awaits them! – Jude 1:10-11 NLT

Jesus has already told us that “the way is hard that leads to life” (Matthew 7:14 ESV). The kingdom life is not an easy one. It will have its moments of trials and difficulties. It will have its dark valleys. Even in the famous 23rd Psalm, we read David’s words describing the life of those who are led by the Shepherd:

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me. – Psalm 23:4 ESV
It will not always be green pastures and still waters. There will be moments of sadness and seasons of despair. But God will be with us, guiding and comforting us. And Jesus would have us know that there will be so-called companions on our life’s journey who will not be what they appear. So, we must be discerning. Jesus would later give His disciples some invaluable advice as He prepared to send them out on their own.
Look, I am sending you out as sheep among wolves. So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves. – Matthew 10:16 NLT
When all is said and done, the only way we have of discerning the true nature of those who claim to be fellow followers of Christ is to look at their fruit. And that means we must judge or discriminate their behavior. We cannot afford to turn a blind eye to sin or refuse to evaluate the true intentions of those who claim to be on our side. The risks are too great. The dangers are real. We must always remember that the thief intends to steal, kill and destroy. The false sheep have false motives. The fake followers have sinister plans. They will attempt to lead the sheep astray. They will try to undermine the gospel. They will minimize the will of God and replace it with the will of men. So, we must constantly evaluate one another based on the fruit of the Spirit. This kind of fruit can’t be replicated. It can be mimicked, but not manufactured. It can be faked, but not produced. And eventually, fake fruit will be exposed as what it is: unhealthy and undesirable.

English Standard Version (ESV)
The Holy Bible, English Standard Version. ESV® Permanent Text Edition® (2016). Copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers.

New Living Translation (NLT)
Holy Bible, New Living Translation, copyright © 1996, 2004, 2015 by Tyndale House Foundation. Used by permission of Tyndale House Publishers Inc., Carol Stream, Illinois 60188. All rights reserved.

The Message (MSG)Copyright © 1993, 1994, 1995, 1996, 2000, 2001, 2002 by Eugene H. Peterson