Luke 6:43-45 – The Heart Always Shows Itself

It’s time to learn about trees and the fruit they produce.  Jesus takes what He just said about judgment and hypocrisy and uses it to launch into a lesson about how to identify good trees (true believers) and bad trees (false believers).  In both cases, they’re identified by the fruit they produce.  Bad trees produce bad fruit; good trees produce good fruit.  And since a tree can only produce one kind of fruit, identifying trees is an exact science (albeit one that may take time).  One who judges another with no awareness of his own sin identifies himself as a bad tree.  That’s one example of how bad trees eventually show themselves just as good trees do.  We know from the totality of scripture that a good tree has been made good by the work of the Son (and that no good tree exists on its own).  The lesson, then, is to examine the fruit of our lives and make sure we’re a good tree sustained by the living water of the Son.

Jesus teaches His disciples how to identify false teachers and false believers.  This teaching flows directly out of what He just said about judgment and hypocrisy.  Hypocrites eventually show themselves.  What and who they truly are eventually come out – they can’t hide what’s in their heart forever.

The illustration Jesus uses brings up several questions.  What does it mean that a tree can only produce one kind of fruit?  Are there no gray areas where a bad tree produces good fruit on occasion and good trees produce bad fruit every now and then?  How does a tree become good or bad?  Do some trees produce no fruit at all?

We can begin to get answers by first looking at the bad trees.  To say that bad trees – nonbelievers, false teachers, false leaders – do not produce good fruit seems stark.  We all could name people who don’t believe the gospel but who are essentially good people who do good things.  Non-Christians can be charitable, considerate, good spouses, good parents.  So what does Jesus mean that they DO NOT produce good fruit?

The first thing to think about is the heart.  Even in their good actions, what bad trees believe and why they do what they do eventually identify them as bad trees.  Their good works are tainted by a heart that gives no credit to God and which hasn’t been cleansed by God. 

It’s revealing that in Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount where Jesus ends the sermon with similar terminology to what Luke records here (Matt 7:15-23), He says that many will say to Him at the judgment that they did amazing works – perform miracles, cast out demons, prophesy in His name – and yet Jesus will tell them He never knew them and that they’re damned.  It’s an example of works done by a bad tree.

It’s also worth noting that Matthew’s version specifically refers to false teachers.  In that case, the lesson is to look at the teacher’s life.  What he/she believes will come out in their choices and behavior.  They may teach the right thing (or something close to it) but if their lives show a lack of concern for the moral and theological principles of scripture, they’re bad trees producing bad fruit.  Believers thus have a responsibility to observe the lives of those who teach and make sure the fruit they see reflects a good tree.

[Along with observing the lives of teachers it also pays to note what they do not teach.  False teachers typically deemphasize sin, repentance, judgment, and the trials implicit in the Christian life.  They emphasize the love of God without the associated justice and holiness.  Their preaching is comfortable, not convicting; their hearers/followers do not cry out for God’s mercy because they have no need of it.  False teachers preach the importance of good works and living a good life, but with no overarching message of the spiritual poverty of the child of God.]

What it comes down to is obedience.  Lives that aren’t typified by obedience – even lives full of otherwise good works – show themselves to be bad fruit-bearing trees.  Lives that have self at the center; lives that aren’t concerned with pleasing God; lives that have no concern for the precepts of God; lives that exist with no thought of an ultimate accounting; these are bad trees bearing bad fruit.  They are in rebellion against God and their lives show it.

In verse 44 Jesus explains that the truth of verse 43 always applies.  A tree can’t produce fruit other than its own.  No one goes to a thorn bush and expects figs.  No one tries to get grapes from a briar bush.  Bad trees can only produce one kind of fruit – bad.  Good trees can only produce one kind of fruit – good.

This last statement is somewhat hard to understand too.  Which of us would say we always produce good fruit?  Isn’t our fruit somewhat of a mixed bag?  Wouldn’t all of us say that there are times when our fruit isn’t exactly fresh and healthy and ready to enjoy?  And yet Jesus says if we’re a good tree we’ll produce good fruit and can’t do otherwise.

To understand this, we have to go back to the gospel.  We’re new creatures no longer living our own lives.  The life that we now live in the flesh we live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and delivered Himself up for us (Gal 2:20).  That means that everything we do is seasoned by the Holy Spirit – by the One who lives in us and for us.  And that indwelling means our actions will more and more become like the One whose Spirit we have.  Thus, we bear good fruit.

Practically, this means that while we still sin, we aren’t typified by sin.  We don’t live unapologetically sinful lives.  We desire holiness and obedience.  We progressively grow in our likeness to the Father.

As to what the fruit looks like, we can look at the beatitudes (Matt 5:3-9) and the fruit of the Spirit (Gal 5:22-23).  We become poor in spirit; we mourn over sin; we’re meek; we hunger and thirst after righteousness; we become merciful, pure in heart, and peacemaking; our lives are typified by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control.  We can add to this what Peter says in his second epistle (II Pet 1:5-11): faith, moral excellence, knowledge, self-control, perseverance, godliness, brotherly kindness, and love.  Peter says to examine ourselves to make sure these characterize our lives, and this goes for all the fruit listed here.

One other aspect of this illustration not to miss – all trees bear fruit.  There’s no such thing as a non-fruit-bearing tree.  And there are only two kinds of trees.  ALL people either bear good fruit because they’re a good tree or bear bad fruit because they’re a bad tree.  There is no third option.  We WILL bear fruit; it’s up to us to examine the fruit and make sure of our calling as a good tree.

This brings up the question of how trees become good.  It makes sense – based on what we know about sin – that all trees start off bad.  And since bad trees by definition have no concern for the precepts of God, it follows that they have no concern for becoming a good tree.  It also follows that they have no ability to change into a good tree on their own.  That means that it’s only through the ministry of the Holy Spirit that a bad tree realizes it’s bad and then desires and is able to become a good tree.

It’s dangerous to mix illustrations, but Jesus’ words about the vine and branches in John 15 are instructive.  There He says that only branches connected to the true vine – Him – will bear fruit.  That truth informs our understanding of how trees become good.  Good trees aren’t good because they bear good fruit.  Good trees bear good fruit because they’re good.  And good trees are good only because they’re changed and sustained by the Son.  There’s no such thing as a good tree that stands alone and no such thing as a self-made good tree.  Abide in Me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself unless it abides in the vine, so neither can you unless you abide in Me. I am the vine, you are the branches; he who abides in Me and I in him, he bears much fruit, for apart from Me you can do nothing. If anyone does not abide in Me, he is thrown away as a branch and dries up; and they gather them, and cast them into the fire and they are burned (Jn 15:4-6).

That last statement goes along with what Jesus says in the Sermon on the Mount about the ultimate fate of bad trees.  They are cut down and thrown into the fire (Matt 7:19).  This is the starkest part of this stark illustration.  We cannot casually wonder if we’re a bad tree nor can we casually assess others’ lives.  Eternity is at stake as bad trees will be eternally damned.

In this verse Jesus gives more depth to what He’s already said.  The evil man has evil in his heart and that evil will eventually show itself.  The same is true of the good (and we know ‘good’ to mean one who has been clothed in the righteousness of Jesus, not someone who’s good because of his own efforts or good genes or proper breeding).  The good in his heart will bring forth what is good.  His good heart will show itself.

Interestingly, how the heart shows itself is apparently through words.  That’s the last line of the verse.  The mouth speaks from what fills the heart.  The parallel passage in Matthew refers specifically to the Pharisees who criticize Jesus (Matt 12:24-37).  They call Him the servant of Satan, they call Him a blasphemer, they question everything about His ministry.  In so doing, they think they’re speaking from a position of righteousness and authority, to warn people away from a dangerous interloper.  What they actually do, however, is show the evil in their hearts and show themselves to be bad trees unable to produce good fruit.

It’s revealing that in the Matthew passage, Jesus says that every careless word will be judged on the great day.  He also says that our words will either justify us or condemn us (Matt 12:36-37).  Just like with our treatment of others, how we speak has eternal ramifications.  The reason it does is because it shows what’s in our hearts.  Fruit proves what kind of tree produced it.  Words prove what kind of heart produced them.  Bad words show a bad heart that will be damned.  Good words show a good heart that will be saved.  The words themselves aren’t the reason for judgment; the hearts they reveal are what bring condemnation.  [That said, understanding this truth should sober us as we consider how we speak to and about others.  EVERY careless word will be judged.  It pays to remember that the next time we start to speak a careless word.]

Closing Thoughts
If we want to identify false teachers and false believers, we must watch their behavior and listen to their words.  Actions and words matter, and both will eventually show what kind of heart produced them.  The abundance of the heart will show itself one way or the other; its true state will eventually overflow into the life of its owner.

That said, words and actions can’t be the focus.  We must not make the mistake of addressing symptoms instead of disease.  If our words and actions show us to have a corrupt heart, we must address the heart.  It’s always the heart (“The heart, Ramon. Don’t forget the heart. Aim for the heart or you’ll never stop me.”).  Just like it makes no sense to focus on bad fruit instead of the tree that produced it, so it makes no sense to address words and actions without first addressing the heart.  An unredeemed heart will show itself; when we see bad fruit, we must cry out to the Spirit of God to move a bad tree to repentance. 

We must examine others – especially teachers – to make sure their teaching and behavior reflect a pure heart redeemed by the Son.  But we must also examine ourselves.  Examine our fruit and make sure it reflects a good tree.

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