DUNCAN/The tree is known by its fruit
Please turn in your Bibles to Matthew 12:33-37. Throughout this chapter, we see the character of the Lord Jesus Christ contrasted clearly with the character of his opponents. Though His opponents, the Pharisees, were reputed to be among the most religious, among the most pious men in Israel in their day, in fact, we see throughout this chapter that it is their hearts that are black even though they are accusing the Lord Jesus of being evil.
In the midst of addressing the Pharisee’s slander against Him, the Lord Jesus teaches us a vital lesson here. He says to us that our thoughts, our attitudes, our words and our actions manifest what we are really like. We will see four things from this passage. First, Christians learn about the character of God through Jesus’ life. Second, Christians learn about religious self-deception from the Pharisees. Third, we are what we do, think, and say. And fourth, our hearts will be manifest in the final judgment by our own words.
I. Christians Learn About the Character of God Through Jesus’ Life
There are several things for us in this passage where the Lord Jesus exchanges with the Pharisees. The first thing you’ll see is in verse 33. In verse 33, you’ll see the Lord Jesus respond to the Pharisees with a challenge and with a proverb. And there, we learn about the character of God through Jesus’ life because Jesus manifests His character by His speech and by His actions. He says in verse 33: “Either make the tree good and it’s fruit good, or make the tree bad and it’s fruit bad; for the tree is known by its fruit.” Jesus defies the Pharisees here by attacking their logic. The Lord Jesus is challenging them to take stock of His actions and see what His actions tell them about His heart.
And, then He points them to a proverb. The proverb is this: The tree is known by its fruit. By that the Lord Jesus simply means that the way we evaluate a heart is in what it produces. Jesus’ heart is seen in what He produces – speech designed to bind up the broken hearted, to draw men and women to God. Miracles designed to heal man in his fallenness and to restore him to the wholeness that God intended for him. Those deeds are not superficial, but they reflect something deeply true about the Lord Jesus Christ – that He is the son of God and He is the Savior of sinners. Jesus’ deeds reveal His true nature. Jesus’ life reveals His heart. His deeds are consistent with who He is.
II. Christians Learn About Religious Self-Deception From the Pharisees
In verses 33-34 we see that our lives reveal our character. The Pharisees here reveal their hearts. They want to look good but they can’t help themselves and their slanderous words, they reveal their hearts. Jesus says to the Pharisees in verse 34, “You brood of vipers, how can you, being evil, speak what is good? For the mouth speaks out of that which fills the heart.”
We can work very hard to look good on the outside, but ultimately, if we have not been transformed by God’s grace on the inside, there is going to be some area where the truth about us breaks through. It may be that only our wife and our children and our closest friends see it because we may work very hard to mask it from everyone else, but there will always be areas of our lives where the truth about us breaks through. And the Lord Jesus says that since the Pharisees are corrupt in their hearts and their thinking, their feeling, their willing, since they are depraved and corrupted in those things, their speech is what gives the line to that problem. You might not be able to see a depraved heart, but you can certainly hear one when you are in the presence of one who is speaking blasphemously and slanderously. Their vile and destructive use of their tongues is what gives them away. And so Jesus gives us speech as something by which we can test ourselves. It is not speech ultimately that makes us righteous. Speech simply reflects the state of our heart.
III. We Are What We Do, Think, and Say
Jesus goes on to say in verse 35 that our hearts are storehouses of good and evil. We learn there that we are what we think, do, and say. Jesus says in verse 35, “The good man brings out of his good treasure what is good; and the evil man brings out of his evil treasure what is evil.” A person’s heart is a reservoir. You can’t bring out of a treasure chest something that’s not in it. And so, when we bring forth goodness, it’s a sign that God’s grace is at work.
And of course our concern should not only be to look good but to actually to have been transformed. We don’t want to be hypocrites – looking spiritual on the outside – while our hearts are devoid of fellowship with God and true love for one another. We want to be transformed and only the Holy Spirit can do that. One is only transformed when one believes on the Lord Jesus Christ – accepting His claims, receiving Him as He is offered in the gospel as the only Savior of our souls, and being transformed by the grace of the Holy Spirit. That is how we experience transformation, and a sanctified tongue is a mark of true spiritual work in us.
IV. Our Hearts Will Be Manifest in the Final Judgment by Our Own Words
In verses 36-37 Jesus says very solemnly that our words will either condemn or acquit us. Here in this passage, Jesus tells us that our hearts will be made manifest in the judgment by the instrument of our words. It is by our words that our wickedness or our holiness will be made manifest. He says in verse 36, “But I tell you that every careless word that people speak, they shall give an accounting for it in the day of judgment. For by your words you will be justified and by your words you will be condemned.” Since we are responsible for what we are and for what we think and for what we feel and for what we say and do, Jesus reminds us that we will give an accounting at the last day. Indeed, Jesus stresses that even careless words, idle words, words that we didn’t even deliberate on before we threw them out, even those words will have to be answered for in the final judgment. Only the grace of God in Christ can change a nature. We can’t change ourselves. Only the regenerating work of the Holy Spirit can do that. And so, your only hope is to turn to Christ.the full.
The Rev. Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III is Chancellor and CEO of Reformed Theological Seminary. He can be reached at 601-923-1600 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.