Luke 13:6-9 “Then he told this parable: ‘A man had a fig-tree, planted in his vineyard, and he went to look for fruit on it, but did not find any. So he said to the man who took care of the vineyard, “For three years now I’ve been coming to look for fruit on this fig-tree and haven’t found any. Cut it down! Why should it use up the soil?” “Sir,” the man replied, “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down.”’”
You are most alert at the beginning of a sermon, and you are curious about this simple, vivid parable of Jesus, and so let me stretch you a little by putting this parable in the context of how God had been dealing with his chosen people, Israel, in the previous 2,000 years – since the time of the call of Abraham. It is in the words of the great prophet Isaiah in chapter 5 the people of God are compared to a vineyard on a fertile hill. Isaiah describes God’s activities in planting this vineyard – God ploughed and tilled the soil; he cleared it of stones, and he planted the very best variety of vines – a guaranteed fruit-producer. That was not all. God erected a watchtower to stop any thieves coming in at night when the grapes were ripe and stealing the fruit. God also designed and built a wine vat. Then the Lord waited for the crop of grapes to grow so that he could make wine. But when the vines that God planted yielded their fruit they were wild grapes. They were like ball-bearings. You could hit them with a hammer and when you cracked them a bitter single drop of juice came out. They were useless to put into a wine vat.
What was God going to do to his wild grape-yielding vineyard? He would simply destroy it. He would uproot the vines and remove its hedge; he would tear down its protective wall and allow the vineyard to be trampled by sheep goats and men. It would return to nature. God would no longer tend it but let the weeds, thorns and thistles grow in the vineyard. But he would show his anger even more sternly; he would also seal the sky and let that hillside and all that grew on it wither under a drought; the sun would scorch it out of existence. The prophet then makes it spectacularly plain what he has been talking about; “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!” (Isa. 5:7).
Within the world of Isaiah’s parable, Israel was the unfruitful vineyard. The good grapes, or more generally, the fruit, that God desired to see grow was that of justice and righteousness. Weren’t these the people of God the Creator? But instead of those graces Israel produced wild grapes – Israel produced injustice and bloodshed. So God cut down his vineyard. It was good for nothing else. Was this the end for Israel? Would God have Israel taken into Babylonian captivity? Would he never rebuild his vineyard? Would that favoured hillside become merely the haunt of wild beasts, a place of drought and barrenness, the only fruit, thorns and thistles? No it will not be the end, though that is what this people deserved. God would show mercy to these people. They would indeed go into exile in the Babylonian captivity of the church but he would bring them back after seventy years and to these people he would send his faithful and fruitful Servant who would rebuild his vineyard and produce a fruitful people. So Israel, God’s servant, fails; she was not fruitful in righteousness, but the promised Christ is coming.
Hear this description of the fruitfulness of the Messiah in the opening verses of Isaiah 11. Notice how the Christ is compared to a wonderful fruit-bearing tree; “A shoot will come up from the stump of Jesse; from his roots a Branch will bear fruit. The Spirit of the LORD will rest on him – the Spirit of wisdom and of understanding, the Spirit of counsel and of power, the Spirit of knowledge and of the fear of the LORD – and he will delight in the fear of the LORD. He will not judge by what he sees with his eyes, or decide by what he hears with his ears; but with righteousness he will judge the needy, with justice he will give decisions for the poor of the earth. He will strike the earth with the rod of his mouth; with the breath of his lips he will slay the wicked. Righteousness will be his belt and faithfulness the sash round his waist” (Isa. 11:1-5). This beloved Son of God “will bear fruit” (v.5). We all know that Isaiah is referring to the Lord Jesus, and when you read of him in the gospels you are confronting a rich life of fruitfulness. More than that, he creates fruitfulness in the lives of others. Bitter, angry, bloodthirsty men like Saul of Tarsus become loving, patient, godfearing men. The whole church of his followers becomes the light of the world and the salt of the earth – by the fruit he causes them to bear. Even more than doing that, this Messiah will make a new heavens and a new earth, and they will be redolent with the righteousness of Christ. Instead of a world of barrenness and sin there will be eternal glorious fruitfulness. The future is not Bertrand Russell’s vision of a sterile rock floating through space for billions of years, a vast asteroid devoid of life, but the earth will be filled with the knowledge of God’s glory. Christ will achieve cosmic fruitfulness; Eden will be restored but never to be abandoned again.
When we read this parable of our Lord in Luke 13 we have to bear this big picture, this Old Testament picture and this eschatological figure, in mind, but this parable cannot be separated from the personal and the individual state of your life, and what it might be now, and what might be happening to it unless it starts to produce fruit.
1. MEN AND WOMEN ARE TO LIVE FRUITFUL LIVES.
We all recognize that. What are our lives to be but rich in graces, productive in wisdom and in beauty of character? Isn’t that the goal of family life and the purpose of education? It is certainly the mighty theme of the Bible. Your goal in life is to become the proper men and women you should be – as those made in the image of God. The Christian gospel pleads with sinners to become real human beings in the likeness of God, and it tells us how that can be achieved. Let me show you the fruit that should be in your life.
i] The fruit produced by the Holy Spirit. Let is look at the letter of Paul to the Galatians and the fifth chapter and verses 22 and 23. Have you ever been fruit picking? Blackberries, cherries, strawberries, gooseberries or apples? You know how you lift some leaves and pull braches aside to see the finest fruit. Here are some mouth-watering, delicious fruit. The first is . . . love! Think of it! Concentrated in one fruit that you can hold in your hand is human affection, the love of your wife or your husband, your mother’s love for you, and the warm smiles of delight in your children as they see you getting out of the car and coming toward them. Love! What a fruit you are holding in your hand. Then you push the leaves aside and there is another magnificent fruit, joy! The happiness of the best and most enduring of earthly pleasures. Then the next fruit . . . look for it and there you see peace! In this world where men’s consciences rage and remind them of the people they have hurt and the foolish and evil things they have done; in this world family break-up, of divorce and wife battering, and child abuse; in this world of the repressive, tyrannical, Muslim regimes cutting down their own citizens with machine guns, people who are merely seeking freedom of expression and conscience. Then in this world everywhere there is this fruit – peace. Then there is another fruit and how rare it is but if you look carefully behind those leaves and in the sunshine warm, tender and sweet . . . patience! And every man is convicted. And every young person thinks of their trigger-sharp response to words and actions, how cutting and sharp they can be, how they must have their way and they can’t wait five minutes for their wives who have been delayed; patience in affliction. Then keep looking on this tree of the Holy Spirit and you will find more gorgeous fruit, and the next is the most tremendous virtue which all of us find so life affirming . . . kindness! We look back through our lives and we stumble across acts of kindness of which we have been the beneficiaries when we received something that touched us so deeply, and all we could murmur through choked emotions was “how kind . . . how terribly kind.” There are more fruit still because these are the fruit of God. The next is the most basic and foundational of all fruit: it is goodness. The Lord Jesus went about doing good we are told, and the moment you start to mock at that, and the moment young men consider ASBOs – Anti Social Behaviour Orders, made against people for their vandalism and threatening behaviour – to be some kind of status symbol of real manliness – then Ichabod is written over this young generation. When men mock goodness and magnify wickedness the skids are under our society and the route to hell gets shorter each day. Here is this wonderful fruit, goodness, and it is seen in parents and grandparents, members of the caring professions and kind strangers who have stopped and helped at cost to themselves – goodness! But there is another fruit . . . keep looking for it and you will find it . . . faithfulness! You see it in friendships when one party has behaved as foolishly as you can imagine, and yet their friend is there for them. You see it in marriages when a husband or a wife become infatuated with a pretty smile and ‘come-on’ eyes and one knows that the door has been left open for them, but they don’t go in! They are faithful; when a minister is under fire from dissident grumblers in the congregation but these people remain faithful to their pastor. What a grace, faithfulness! Then again the penultimate fruit, and how precious it is, gentleness! When you have been spoken to curtly by your boss at work, when your teacher snarls at you, when your own parents are unloving and rough – then oh what a delight to be dealt with by men and women of gentleness! The last of all . . . self-control. What a delicious fruit! There is the absence of retaliation. Jesus was reviled and smashed in the face, and spit upon, and crucified, but he showed such self control, loving his pain-inflicting neighbours as his pain-receiving self. Self-control. Of course, our Lord displayed all these nine fruit. This is how God is. You look at Jesus Christ and you see God. And this is also our calling.
Imagine our town packed with people living like that. How few policemen, how few private security firms, how few lawyers and solicitors, how few security cameras needed. Imagine our congregation and everyone seeking to be fruitful in the graces the Spirit of God can produce, what a fragrant orchard would be our church as people coming to it would discover, every member full of love, joy, peace, patience, gentleness, goodness, faithfulness, meekness and self-control. No organization could compare to it. You’d want to go to it for the benefits you’d derive from being in such a health-giving spa! That would be a place you wouldn’t miss any week; you could miss the pub, and the club, and the cinema, and the soccer team but you could never miss meeting in a beautiful place where people display such graces in such abundance. You would want to be there and not rush away, but listen and watch and enjoy the rearrangement of your priorities learning week by week of these wonderful fruit. Can you see why God comes looking for such fruit? However, there is another description of the fruit of grace . . .
ii] The blessed attitudes produced by Christ. I am talking now of the famous Sermon on the Mount and the famous ‘beatitudes’ which begin that discourse. There in Matthew’s gospel the Lord Jesus is defining for us what true blessedness consists of. What fruit these are! Hear him begin the Sermon; “Blessed are the poor in spirit for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Here is a life in which there is no pomp and vanity and show. There is nothing of the lifestyle of that Pharisee in the temple who stood up and spoke aloud for everyone to see and hear him thanking God that he wasn’t like other people, that he was a righteous man. No, there is none of that. The Christian life consists of a realistic self-awareness, that we are poor inconsistent creatures, lurching and limping along needing grace to get by each day: “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” (Matt. 5:3). Here are people who also the fruit of sorrow for the hurt they have done to others and the barrier they have built between themselves and God; “Blessed are those who mourn for they will be comforted” (Matt.5:4). What tender fruit! It really matters to them how they have acted and they get deeply troubled. Then he says, “Blessed are the meek for they will inherit the earth” (Matt.5:5). They are not sensitive to any suggested slight on their character, any teasing, any suggestion that they might be mistaken, or that they needed to change in any way, or to repent for sinful acts. No, they nod their heads and agree that they have not been the sort of husbands or sons or fathers they should have been. They are meek! Then again, “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness for they will be filled” (Matt. 5:6). Here are people not hungering for the best restaurants, and the oldest wines, and the aged malt whiskeys, and the latest fashionable clothes. They are vaguely interested in that stuff, but they are passionate for righteousness. They want to be righteous men and women, in the imaginations, in their desires, in their words, in the actions. They want to be people of integrity. They want to be straight. They long for it. They might have some of it but they want more and more of it, they hunger for it and thirst for it. They’ve got to have it! They must be righteous people. Then again they are compassionate to those who have hurt them and now regret it: “Blessed are the merciful for they will be shown mercy” (Matt. 5:7). They don’t bear a grudge. They don’t cease having any contact with those people. They don’t stop sending Christmas cards, and never phoning. They are merciful. They turn the other cheek. They seek reconciliation. What delicious fruit! Who cannot but long to have such fruit in his life! Then again, they are genuinely pure people because they have an inward purity. “Blessed are the pure in heart for they will see God” (Matt. 5:5). That is where we are tested. We can outwardly live a proper life. We don’t buy those magazines from the top shelf. But if you knew the sort of imaginations and lusts that erupted in our lives you would spit in our faces. But our hearts are being purified by the indwelling Spirit. God is not interested in cosmetic change but inward effectual transformation. Then there is another fruit, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called the sons of God” (Matt. 5:9). Are you the members of your family who can reconcile the generations, who can bring brothers together again? Are you the person in a church who keeps his counsel instead of running off to the elders and minister with your complaints? Are you a divisive influence everywhere? Or are you a peacemaker? You can go to a married couple whose relationship is on the rocks, or into a church where there is disharmony, and you can make peace by wisdom and love. What fruit! Then the beatitudes end with two long descriptions of the sort of response that such a life produces. What is it, that everyone stands and sings, “For he’s a jolly good fellow,” and shakes his hand and gives him a clock! Is that what we read in Matthew five and verses 10 and 11 and 12? Is the fruit that God creates in us greeted with world-wide popularity and we are voted “Citizen of the Year’” and we get cited in the New Year Honours list and get an award from the Queen? Do we become the most popular girl in the school? No, we do not. Nothing like that happens. We live like that and then if we live in Iran we are put in prison, and shot dead in Pakistan, and burnt at the stake in Wales in the 16th century. Men hate the life of the beatitudes in their faces. They grumble about fanaticism, and being extreme. They are theoretically open to tolerance in religion, but not in a religion that lives like that and says that we should all live like this. “Blessed are those who are persecuted for righteousness . . . Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you” (Matt. 5:10&11). Yet these are the fruit that God makes in his people. Are you being a fruitful Christian? If you are a real Christian you cannot but help live like this. If you are a true Christian this is your present and this is your future. Then again there is another description of this fruit . . .
iii] The consequences of heavenly love taking over your life. Everyone praises love. The sentimental old Beatles sang a hymn to it, “All you need is love, love, love; love is all you need.” What did they mean? They meant relationships; loving sexual relationships. That was it. ‘Love’ justified everything. But what is that love that comes from the God who is love, the same love that he sheds abroad in our hearts by the Holy Spirit whom he gives us? What is this fruitful love? If it is so important then we must have it. It is explained to us in I Corinthians chapter 13 and in verses 4 through 8. This is the fruit that grace produces in the lives of each true Christian (maybe you want to put your own name there instead of the word ‘love’ and examine yourself to see if this is how you are living). “Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. Love never fails.” What wonderful fruit – in the mere Christian – given and sustained by God.
iv] The fruit we have to add diligently to our lives day by day and every passing moment. They are mentioned by Peter in his second letter and in the opening chapter. He is addressing the whole church and exhorts them all to become more and more fruitful: “Make every effort to add to your faith goodness; and to goodness, knowledge; and to knowledge, self-control; and to self-control, perseverance; and to perseverance, godliness; and to godliness, brotherly kindness; and to brotherly kindness, love. For if you possess these qualities in increasing measure, they will keep you from being ineffective and unproductive in your knowledge of our Lord Jesus Christ” (2 Pet. 1:5-8). Peter says that there are two choices, two alternatives before us. One is that by our seriousness and effort we will makes sure that these fruit grow more and more in us. That is one alternative. The other alternative is that we might have some unspecific knowledge of Christ but it is not the knowledge that will produce any lasting fruit and we become ineffective and unproductive. What is it going to be? A fruitful life or an unproductive life?
That is enough of my explanation of what true spiritual fruitfulness consists of, what are the marks of God working to will and to do of his good pleasure in a professing Christian. This person is changing. He is not going to be barren. He is going to be fruitful.
2. THREE IMPORTANT AND POINTED CONCLUSIONS.
These three conclusions are the heart and climax of this parable. The people listening to Jesus were largely Israelites according to the flesh, Jewish men and women who had had the covenants and promises of the Old Testament, people who had had the Temple and the sacrifices for forgiveness. They also had had the promised Messiah with them for three years – isn’t it significant that Jesus mentions the figure ‘three years’ in this parable (v.7)? How was Israel responding to the presence of its Messiah? Were they the same old, unbelieving, apathetic rebels they’d always been, stoning the prophets, and hating the message God spoke to them? Or were they a fruitful generation? People say to us today that if only they could see men rise from the dead, or see 5000 men fed from five loaves and two fishes then they would become Christians mighty quick. They plead lack of evidence as the rational for not following Christ. But these people to whom Jesus told this parable, for three years had seen lepers cleansed and men rise from the dead. They had heard the sermon on the mount preached to them. Had Jesus Christ impacted them at all? Or did they love their sin and unbelief too much to turn in repentance from it and follow him? What does the great gardener of our souls say to us in this parable?
i] God examines each life to see if there is fruit. You matter to God. That is why God brought you here today. He loves you so much that he has something to say to you, and that is the very words that you have heard on this special occasion. He gave you courage, and brought you out of your comfort zone and set you down in this congregation and he did all that kindly and softly and tenderly in order to help you. His purpose is to make you the sort of person you ought to be, that your best self says you should be, a fruitful person. God knows all about you. There is nothing you can hide from him. He knew you even in your mother’s womb. He knows you exhaustively today. Our first parents, Adam and Eve, tried to hide from God. They were singularly unsuccessful. Can any hide himself in a secret place and I shall not find him? Not one, says God.
God comes to you now and he looks at your life. He puts you in his balances and he weighs your life and finds you wanting. He sizes you up and examines you. What is he looking for? He is looking for fruit. Love, joy, peace . . . poverty of spirit, mourning for your guilt and shame, hunger for righteousness . . . love thatis patient and kind, that does not envy, that does not boast, that is not proud, that is not rude, that is not self-seeking, that is not easily angered, that keeps no record of wrongs. He is looking for such fruit in your life. Are these not good and great things? He is not asking you to run a four minute mile. He is not asking you for perfection as a qualification for grace. He is asking whether you are adding fruitfulness to your lives week by week and year by year. Is it there? You say you are a Christian, that Jesus Christ lives in your life, so where are the marks of that? Sometimes we see the marks of an inward cancerous growth in a person’s life in his visible illness and weakness and loss of weight and loss of health skin colour. Those are the negative marks of a destructive alien life within us, but here is the infinite opposite, the presence of that life Jesus spoke of as being in you when our Lord said, “I have come that they might have life and have it more abundantly,” abundant life that is all divine, all love, and all holy, and all saving. Where is the fruit of the living spirit of Jesus being in you? That is what God looks for. What does Jesus say here? “He went to look for fruit on it” (v.6).
What does this tell us about God? Does it say that he is a distant deity, that he is massively disinterested in this world and what goes on day by day, that he simply shrugs his shoulders at the joy and pain you experience and how you live, that he makes no judgment at all between a torture victim and the torturer, that they are equally tiny floating distant specks to him? Is that what this parable tells us? That the gardener glanced at the fig tree and he was barely perturbed whether it was alive or dead – he didn’t care? Is that what we get here? No, it is not what we read in these words of Jesus. He comes to search for the fruit of obedience and holiness and love, that these things matter very much to him because we are all made in his image and we live and move and have our being in God, that our breath is in his hands, and he is holding us to account. God is our judge. To God we will answer, because this is a moral universe. God is examining the lives of each one of us to see if there is the fruit of saving faith. It is eternally important that that fruit is found there.
ii] God says he will cut down every tree that does not bear fruit. Then how is it today between you and God? Should you breathe your last in the next days how would it be when you faced him? Will he be pleased with the marks of grace in your life, that there is trust in Jesus Christ, there is poverty of spirit about your own achievements and that your hopes are in Christ alone, that there is love, joy and peace and all the other graces in your life? God is examining your life just now I say and what is he finding? Are you concerned? You took your car to the garage for a check up. It was not functioning as it should. Would you take the response of the mechanics seriously when they told you of the faults they had found in it? You would. You were concerned about some pain you were experiencing, and you went to the doctor, and he in turn referred you to a specialist. What would you do when he gave you the diagnosis of your condition? Would you argue with him, or start to make excuses, or mock him, or ignore all he had carefully told you about the treatment or operation you needed? I don’t think so, because he is an authority and you are not. I am speaking to you today on the authority of the Bible, on these words of Jesus within the whole framework of what we find in the Scriptures and how they tell us how we should live. They tell us that one day the Lord will say about your life, “Cut it down!” (v.7).
If I were to base those fearful words on one parable then you might object, but I have quoted to you from the prophet Isaiah what God did to the barren vineyard. He uprooted the vines and pulled down the walls and let the land return to barrenness, the habitation of the wild beast and thorn bushes. That is what God said he would do. Again, our Lord Jesus in John 15 says, “I am the true vine and my Father is the gardener,” and he goes on to say that “he cuts off every branch in me that bears no fruit” (Jn. 15:2). What is the point of a branch taking all its life from the vine but producing no fruit? Other fruit is weaker and smaller as a result. In our parable he protests to the junior gardener, “Why should it use up the soil?” (v.7). It is taking nutrients from other plants.
So the Lord Christ is warning us that God comes and he examines every fig-tree. He doesn’t give the tree a cursory glance, and that he often comes over a three year period, hoping and anticipating and waiting patiently for the first appearance of fruit. God is as reluctant as any good gardener to take out his saw and destroy a living tree.
iii] God waits patiently in order to encourage you become fruitful before the Great Day comes. God is the Lord of infinite patience. In the days of Noah he waited 120 years to see if there would be a change in the culture of Noah’s time, whether they would turn from their immorality and unbelief and look to God, crying mightily to him for grace. Noah preached to them decade after decade to no effect. He tested his Old Testament people by sending them into Babylon for seventy years to cure them of their love of idols, and then he brought them home again. For 2,000 years he waited and looked and longed that they would become fruitful. God does nothing in a hurry. God delays his strange work of judgment. The wheels of God grind slowly, but they do grind, and they grind exceeding small.
The under-servant pleads with his master, please “leave it alone for one more year, and I’ll dig round it and fertilise it. If it bears fruit next year, fine! If not, then cut it down” (vv. 8&9). You have ignored God for years and yet you have enjoyed health and prosperity. You think that you cannot believe in a God who brings judgment into anyone’s life. I say, Jesus is being patient with you. He is a good and loving Lord; he would have all men saved and come to the knowledge of the truth. “Turn, please turn! Why will you die? You can be fruitful,” and his many kindnesses and patience towards you are all to encourage you to greater repentance for more years of unbelief.
So he speaks to you by strange providences, by deliverances, and deep convictions, and invitations to church, and gifts of books. There was a man in the church at which I was preaching during the last two Sundays who had not gone to church for a decade. He was traveling on a bus, on public transport, and the driver, instead of putting on a CD of popular music put on a CD of gospel music, and for an hour this man sat and listened to it. God spoke to him through the words of the hymns and he resolved that come next Sunday he would find a church which preached this Christian message, and eight months ago he came to that church and has never looked back. His life has been transformed. That gospel music was the digging into his heart, and the application of the fertilizer that Jesus speaks of here (v.8). It bore fruit in his life; it has borne fruit in many of your lives. The word of God, the kindness of friends, the growing ring of reality whenever you get close to the gospel, all these things God uses to loosen you life from the glue of sin that cements you into the world’s attitudes of unbelief and contempt for the gospel. Today you’re experiencing the digging of God, the divine fertilizer, the encouragement to come out of your old barren life into new life in Christ.
Here is the message of the gospel, that we deserve eternal death because of our sin, but Jesus Christ because he loved us, died for us. He took our condemnation in his own body on the cross, and now we cane be joined to him as we entrust ourselves to him, as we turn from unbelief to put our trust in all he is and all he has done.
Just as I am without one plea, but that Thy blood was shed for me,
And that Thou bidd’st me come to Thee, O Lamb of God I come.
Forgiveness, and mercy can be ours, and henceforth we will enjoy illimitable access to an indwelling Saviour. Henceforth we will enjoy his fructifying and irrigating work in our own hearts, no longer barren, no longer living a pointless existence, but fruit growers of love and joy and peace though the power of the grace of Jesus Christ. I can’t understand how all of you don’t long for such divine, heavenly, eternal life being in you and giving you such blessed fruit for evermore, achieving your end in life. Before the Great Day comes. Then it will be too late. Now is the appointed time, the day of salvation. Believe upon the Lord Jesus Christ and you will be saved.
27th February 2011 GEOFF THOMAS